Shakspere shows the widest reach of the mind apart from a definite religious purpose or a strong religious faith. In contrast with him is the Puritan effort to apprehend and follow a divine rule and achieve a divine destiny. The typical Puritan addressed himself to man's foes,—all griefs and sufferings culminating in Death; all wrong-doing, as Sin; and the retribution and woe hereafter, as Hell. To escape from these was his supreme object, and to win what he as firmly believed in—Holiness, Life, and Heaven.
The creed was accepted as the form of this truth, but the earnest men sought to know its truths experimentally,—to take home the full sense of them. This was found in the consciousness of man's supreme need; and, responding to that, a divine command, an invitation, and a threat. The result of this was to set man upon a struggle so intense that it was indeed a warfare,—first, against his own lusts, then against the evils in the world around him. These evils were to him embodied—in the Pope, the head of a false religion, the oppressor of God's people; in the imitation and approach to Popery in the church of England; in all false belief and error, all wrong-doers, and Satan himself.
The Puritan believed that the sublimest possibility was open to man, and purposed at every cost to achieve it. "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." There was also the most dreadful possibility to be shunned. All earthly pleasure he held in suspicion, as a bait of the great adversary of souls.
The belief of serious men in the seventeenth century was that theology was the guide to heaven. They believed this as modern men believe that science is the guide to human life. Hence, an infinite diversity of sects, and hence the attempts to enforce each by authority.
The Bible fed the deeper substratum of the Puritan life. It touched and fired the imagination of the common people. The dominant idea on which the English Puritan laid hold was the Old Testament idea of God's chosen people,—separate from the rest of the world, given a code of written laws, led by a divinely appointed priesthood and prophets, disciplined by a constant intervention of rewards and punishments. This conception they transferred to the faithful of their own time; and against them was Antichrist, in the Roman church, to which the English prelates seemed traitorously to incline. They proposed to purify and maintain the church in England, or, failing there, to transplant it to America.
The typical Puritan character, as most fully worked out in Scotland and New England, was a mixture of intense idealism and sternest practicality. The idealism aimed to control every action of life, and to base itself on the ultimate reality. It renounced the aid of art and embodied imagination; it renounced human authority; it had no aid from material beauty, none from knowledge of nature.
This religion had an appalling side. Foremost among its teachings was man's depravity and the terrible wrath of God. The worst cruelty of the Iroquois was mercy compared to God's dealing with sinners. This was an inheritance from an older religion. But the condition of salvation in the Catholic church—and in all high church religion—was practically obedience to the church. But the Puritan required a conscious change of heart, which to many was impossible. The utmost pains were taken that the most laborious right-doing should count for nothing, unless accompanied by this mystic experience.
Catholicism put man under guardianship through the hierarchy, the confessional, the whole church system. Calvinism threw him on his own resources,—set him face to face with God. It, too, set a church to help him, but even the minister of the church exhorted him to make his own peace with God. This responsibility weighted men heavily, and made them sombre. It crushed the feeble, but made strong men stronger.
The first half of the seventeenth century was full of religious enthusiasms, which carried high expectations. Milton looked for a wonderful advance in truth. The Puritan sought to build a church simple in forms, austere in morals and manners, exacting personal holiness of its members, and subjecting the ungodly to a rule of the saints. Charles the First and Archbishop Laud believed in a religious monarchy; that the king should be chief in church and state; that beauty of ritual should go along with the encouragement of festivity and joyousness; and that the ultimate aim was a reunited Christendom.
The wave passed, and these expectations had failed. But the force of the Puritan movement had accomplished certain things. It had turned the tide of the English civil war, it had leavened the more serious portion of the nation, and it had planted the New England colonies.
In England the Puritan zeal gave force to overthrow despotism, but it then plunged the nation into chaos; it could not rule or harmonize the composite forces of national life; constitutional monarchy was established at last under William of Orange, by men of less fervent and lofty temper than the Puritans, but better conversant with the wants and possibilities of the actual world.
Milton was a man of heroic mould. He governed himself by a deliberate and lofty moral purpose. The thirst for "moral perfection" inspired and ruled his life. He was far from the narrowness of the typical Puritan. He was open on all sides to the noblest influences. The heroic antique temper, the beauty and richness of the Greek, the religious seriousness of the Puritan, the English love of freedom, all met in him. He was at heart a poet and scholar, but he threw himself into the active life of his time.
Yet his genius was cramped by his theology. He could not fuse the conflicting elements of thought,—just as the heroes of the Revolution, Pym and Hampden and Cromwell and Falkland, could not blend the elements of English political society. He is like his own lion "struggling to get free." His epic is a story of disaster. His deity is undivine. There is more that touches sympathy and admiration in his Satan than in his Jehovah or Adam.
The best thing he gives us is his own noble personality, imbuing the majestic rhythm with a kind of moral power. Servant and friend of Cromwell, sacrificing all scholarly delight to his country's need, champion of freedom, worshiper of truth, building in neglected solitude his epic,—his works are less than Shakspere's, but he is greater than the imaginary Hamlet, Othello, or Brutus.
Cromwell is in action the counterpart of Milton in thought,—a heroic nature struggling with irreconcilable elements. Each is confronted by a situation as difficult as Hamlet's; but though they cannot fully master it, they deal with it like men.
Here is the true advantage of the men of religion over Shakspere and his creations,—here is the greater world than Shakspere saw,—men grappling with their fate and in the struggle working out heroic lives.
The finest type of the New England colonists is seen in the Winthrops, father and son. When the migration is determined on, the son writes: "For myself, I have seen so much of the variety of the world that I esteem no more of the diversities of countries than as so many inns, whereof the traveler that hath lodged in the best or the worst findeth no difference when he cometh to his journey's end; and I shall call that my country where I may most glorify God and enjoy the presence of my dearest friends. Therefore herein I submit myself to God's will and yours, and, with your leave, do dedicate myself (laying by all desire of other employments whatsoever) to the service of God and the company herein, with the whole endeavors both of body and mind."
The elder Winthrop is shown to us in the Journal or chronicle of the Massachusetts colony, a sombre record of seemingly petty events; in his religious diary of an earlier period; and in his domestic letters, which are full of manly strength and sweetness. He combined some of the chief elements of greatness,—loftiness of aim; a character disinterested, patient, modest, brave; deep religious experience; and personal tenderness.
To a man like Winthrop, the heart of his creed was that man's true aim is moral perfection and a living relation with a Divine Lover. The sense of a Divine Presence—inspiring, ruling, gladdening—is what his religion means to him. In this quiet country gentleman, portrayed in his private diary, is an intense play of feeling and imagination, concentrated on the attainment of a personal and social ideal.
All this introspective fervor merged into a public enterprise,—the transplanting of a church and colony to Massachusetts Bay. The last half of his life was spent in the most assiduous, minute, exacting labors. The self-watchful diary gives place to a public chronicle, prosaic as a ship's log-book—and, like the log-book, the shorthand record of adventures, heroisms, and sublimities.
In the Puritan of Winthrop's type the flame of spiritual emotion was harnessed and made to serve. The drudgery of founding New England was done by men whose hearts were touched with fire,—men such as Lowell sings of:—
"Who, dowered with every gift of passion, In that fierce flame can forge and fashion Of self and sin the anchor strong; Can thence compel the driving force Of daily life's mechanic course."
Winthrop set out with a great ideal—shown with statesmanlike breadth in the "Considerations," and with apostolic fervor in the "Model of Christian Charity." His conception was cramped into conformity with the far narrower views of the ministers who were the leaders in the colony. Yet it was his ideal and his personality which gave most to success.
The letters between Winthrop and his wife are an example of human love perfected by a higher love. He writes to her: "Neither can the sea drown thy husband, nor enemies destroy, nor any adversity deprive thee of thy husband." Shakspere has no note like that. Margaret writes from her country home to her husband in London: "My good husband, cheer up thy heart in the expectation of God's goodness to us, and let nothing dismay or discourage thee; if the Lord be with us, who can be against us? My grief is the fear of staying behind thee, but I must leave all to the good providence of God." She was obliged to stay behind in England, awaiting the birth of a child. On the eve of sailing he writes her: "I purpose, if God will, to be with thee upon Thursday come sen'night, and then I must take my leave of thee for a summer's day and a winter's day. The Lord our good God will (I hope) send us a happy meeting again in his good time. Amen! Being now ready to send away my letters, I received thine; the reading of it has dissolved my head into tears. Can write no more. If I live, I will see thee ere I go. I shall part from thee with sorrow enough; be comfortable, my most sweet wife, our God will be with thee. Farewell."
A few months later, across the pages of the Journal, full of the cares and anxieties of the struggling colony, shines a ray of pure joy. Margaret has come! And the whole community rejoices and makes cheer, with homely and hearty feasting, for the happiness of their good governor.
The actual conditions nourished homely virtues,—industry, thrift, self-reliance, family affection, civic responsibility. The greatness of early New England is partly measured by the fact that there were comparatively no dregs, no mass of ignorance and vice. It was not the individuals who rise into sight at this distance who were superior to the prominent men of England or France,—it was the lower stratum which was above that elsewhere. Two prime causes worked to this elevation,—the spiritual estimate of man and the economic conditions which offered independence to every one on the condition "work and save." The social and political conditions were largely shaped by these underlying facts.
The wrestle for a livelihood under stern material conditions was a prime factor in the making of New England. Whatever the creed might say, in practice Work was the equal partner of Faith in building manhood and the state. The soil was to their bodies what Calvinism was to their souls,—yielding nourishment, but only through a hard struggle. Its sterility drove them to the sea for a livelihood; they became fishermen; then, carrying their fish and lumber abroad, they grew into commerce. They traded along the coast, to the West Indies, to Europe, and so into their little province came the winds of the larger world. They learned the sailor's virtues,—his courage, his mingled awe and mastery of elemental forces, his sense of lands beyond the horizon. Well might Winthrop name the first ship he launched "The Blessing of the Bay."
The austere land had small room for slaves, dependent and incapable. One of the first large companies included some scores of bondmen; they landed to face a fierce and hungry winter, and straightway the bondmen were set free,—as slaves they would be an incumbrance; as freemen they could get their own living. The thrifty colonists of a later generation did a driving business in African slaves for their southern neighbors, but they had small use for them at home.
Winthrop's constant effort, as shown in his Journal, is for reason and right. It is the arguments for and against any course that he elaborates. Scarce a word of their sufferings or of his own feelings—but to know and do the right was all-important. The greatness of his own ideal is shown when he draws with a free hand, in the "Conclusions" or the "Model." In the Journal, he is laboring toward this under the iron conditions of actualities. He and his associates had to be strong-willed and stern; they were warring against tremendous difficulties—more tremendous to them because interpreted as the work of Satan, while even their God was an awful being.
Superstition throws a dark shadow over the chronicle. Even Winthrop was deeply infected by it. Disasters small and great were interpreted, on the Old Testament idea, as divine judgments. A boy seven years old fell through the ice and was drowned while his parents were at lecture, and his sister was drowned in trying to save him. "The parents had no more sons, and confessed they had been too indulgent towards him, and had set their hearts overmuch on him." A man working on a milldam kept on for an hour after nightfall on Saturday to finish it, and next day his child fell into a well and was drowned. The father confessed it as a judgment of God for his Sabbath-breaking.
There is not unfrequent mention of some woman driven by religious brooding to frenzy, sometimes to murder. The awful possibilities of hell for herself and her children wrought the mother-heart to madness. The religious guides of the people used unsparingly the appeal to fear. The belief in witchcraft, which long had scourged Europe, broke out in a panic of fear and cruelty. It was a tragic culmination of the worst elements,—superstition, malignity, ministerial tyranny. Then came the reaction, and with it a triumph of the wiser sense, the cooler temper, the layman's moderation, which thenceforth were to guide the commonwealth on a humbler but safer road.
In a dramatic sense the turning-point of the story—and the revelation of the saving power at the heart of this grim people—was when, after the witchcraft frenzy had subsided, Samuel Sewall, the chief justice of the colony, rose in his place in the meeting-house and humbly confessed before God and man that he had erred and shed innocent blood.
In the more prosaic temper of the next stage, a sturdy manhood sometimes flashes into poetry. So John Wise, a minister but the leader of the popular party in church government, strikes the high note of courage: "If men are trusted with duty, they must trust that, and not events. If men are placed at the helm to steer in all weather that blows, they must not be afraid of the waves or a wet coat."
In personal religion there was from the outset the intense struggle for an inward peace and joy, with tears and groanings,—the victory sometimes found, sometimes missed. There was a resolute facing of what was held as truth. The ministers and laymen battled with the problems of the infinite. The issue after two centuries was an open break from Calvinism in Channing, and the glad vision of Emerson.
A feature in the story is the New Englander's relation with Nature as he found her,—first like a terrible power of destruction, by cold and hunger; this he conquers by endurance. Then for generations he wrings a hard livelihood out of her. Then by his wits he makes her serve him more completely. At last her beauty is disclosed to him,—a beauty which has its roots in the very struggles he has had, and the contrasts they afford,—no child of the tropics loves Nature as he does.
So of the sea: first he dares it as explorer and voyager; then he makes it his feeding-ground—catches the cod and chases the whale; in his ships he does battle against pirate and public foe; he makes the deep the highway of his commerce; and at last he feels its grandeur, into which enters the reminiscence of all his combats.
Elements which Puritanism had renounced came in later from other sources. The fresh contact with truth and reality was given by Franklin. The free joy of religion, its aggressive love, came in Methodism. Beautiful ritual returned in Episcopacy. The frank enjoyment of life developed in the South, transmitted from the country life of the English squire and mellowed on American soil.
At the outset of the story of America stands the Puritan, his heart set on subduing the infernal element and winning the celestial; regarding this life as a stern warfare, but the possible pathway to an infinite happiness beyond; fierce to beat down the emissaries of evil,—heretic, witch, or devil; yet tender at inmost heart, and valiant for the truth as he sees it. After a century, behold the Yankee,—the shrewd, toilful, thrifty occupant of the homely earth; one side of his brain speculating on the eternities, and the other side devising wealth, comfort, personal and social good. And to-day, successor of Puritan and Yankee, Cavalier and Quaker, stands the American, composite of a thousand elements, with a destiny which seems to hover between heights and abysses, but amid all whose vicissitudes and faults we still see faith and courage and manly purpose working toward a kingdom of God on earth and in heaven.
The Protestant way of salvation was through "experimental religion." This meant the appropriation as a personal experience of the truths of human guilt and divine mercy. A man must not only believe but intensely feel that he was wholly guilty before God and in danger of everlasting damnation. He must then have a vivid appreciation that Christ out of pure love had died for him, and that on this ground alone God offered him pardon and salvation. This offer he must consciously accept, with emotions of profound remorse for his wrong-doing, gratitude for his deliverance, and absolute dependence upon divine grace for help against future sin and for final reception to an endless heaven.
To attain this experience was the aim and goal of the religious man, under all the more strenuous forms of Protestantism. Until it was reached, all good actions, all fair traits of character, were worthless. Without it there was no escape from the unquenchable fire. If it came as a genuine experience, it was the passage from death unto life. But as there was great possibility of self-deception in the matter, the mind was constantly thrown back on self-examination, and in sensitive natures there was often an alternation of terrors and transports.
This experience of saving faith, of experimental religion, must be translated for us into very different language and symbols from those which our ancestors used before we can have any sympathy with it. Perhaps the truest account of the matter for us is something like this: the Christian theology was a system of myths, which had grown out of facts of human experience. The initial fact was a good man whose love went out to bad men, and woke in them a sense of their own wrong along with a new joy and hope. From this centre the influence spread in widening circles, and was gradually transformed in the expression,—mixed too with earlier notions, with crudities, with sophistications,—until Justice and Love and Punishment and Forgiveness were personified and dramatized and a whole cloud-world of fancy built up. Already in the age of the Reformation the human intellect was sapping the foundations of the structure. But the religious imagination was still intensely susceptible, and when the moral sense was sharply awakened by the reformers both within and without the Catholic church, it fell back on the imagination as its familiar ally, and clothed with new life the ancient forms. The Catholic turned with fresh ardor to mass and miracle and holy church. The Protestant fell back on a more personal and inward experience; he conceived that in each heart and mind the whole drama from Eden to Calvary and on to the Judgment Day must be realized and appropriated as the working principle of life.
To the mystical, the sentimental, the self-confident, it was a welcome and uplifting exercise. To the timid and self-distrustful it was a terrible ordeal. To the intellectual it was a perpetual challenge to skepticism. Even Bunyan puts as his first and worst temptation, "to question the being of God and the truth of his gospel." To the prosaic and practical minds it made the whole business of religion a dim and far-away affair.
Experimental religion was the core of Protestantism for more than three centuries. It was blended with other elements in a series of great movements. In Puritanism it united with an ascetic and militant temper, a metaphysical theology, a stern rule of life, and a conception of the nation as under a divine law like that of ancient Israel.
Then came Quakerism, a religion of the quiet, illumined heart, and the peaceful life. Next, Methodism, a wave of aggressive love, seeking to save others where Puritanism had been self-saving, appealing less to the head and more to the heart. Following this, in England, came Evangelicalism, a revival of self-conscious experience, but flowing out now not only as in Methodism into a crusade to save souls, but into labors for criminals, for slaves, for the poor, under such leaders as Howard and Wilberforce and Shaftesbury.
These phases are from English and American history. They might largely be paralleled elsewhere. And along with them, it is to be remembered, went always not only a party imbued with the Catholic or high church idea, but also a moderate party, holding a more broadly and simply religious view.
Perhaps the most effective type of Christianity has been the simple acceptance of the familiar laws of goodness, having in the Bible their express sanction, with a great promise and an awful warning for the future, and the embodiment of holiness, love, and help, in Christ. This has been the religion of a multitude of faithful souls, manly men and womanly women, who did not concern themselves with any elaborate theology, but went along their daily way, strong in obedience to duty, trustful in a divine guidance, and with serene hope for what may come after death. Their souls have been nurtured on whatever was most vital and most tender in the words of Scripture and the services of the church, and whatever was unintelligible or innutritions they have quietly passed by. This is the essential religion of humanity, made definite and vivid by accepted symbols and rules, and made warm by the sense of fellowship with a great company.
Recurring to the successive phases of religious thought, the next development of Protestantism, while in a sense world-wide, may be most clearly seen in America. By Jonathan Edwards there was begun the application of a rationalizing process to the theology of Calvin and to experimental religion. In Edwards almost the only result was a more lurid and tremendous affirmation of the old dogma and the old requirement. But the New England mind, speculative, practical, and intense, worked rapidly on. In Channing and his associates came the renunciation of Depravity, Atonement, and the Trinity. In the next generation, Unitarianism expressed itself through Theodore Parker as simple theism. A little later than the Unitarian movement, the old Orthodoxy itself became transformed into a new Orthodoxy. The foremost interpreters of the transformation were Bushnell and Beecher; Bushnell translating the Atonement into terms of purely natural goodness,—not as a transaction, but an expression; and Beecher finding in Christ simply the truth that Love is sovereign of the universe. To Bushnell and Beecher the historical Christ remained in a unique sense an incarnation of God. By later voices of the new Orthodoxy—for example, Phillips Brooks—he is spoken of rather as the one actual instance of perfect humanity, and in this sense a manifestation of God and the spiritual leader of mankind.
But for three centuries men have been studying the facts of existence from an entirely different side from that whence the church takes its outlook. They have been finding out all kinds of curious facts, totally unconnected with any supernatural sphere. First, they made such discoveries as that the world is not flat, but round; not stationary, but doubly revolving. And so they went on. The stars, the plants, the animals, the human body, yielded all manner of curious knowledge. New powers came into men's hands through this knowledge; new avenues to happiness were opened. Facts wove themselves together in wider and wider combinations. Orderly procedure was found where there had seemed such confusion as only capricious spirits could occasion. It is learned, too, that even as the individual man has grown up from babyhood, so the race of man has grown up from the beast. The globe itself has grown from a simple origin into infinite diversity and complexity. There has been a universal, orderly growth,—what we name "Evolution." And it is learned that all mental phenomena, so far as we can explore them, stand in some close relation to a physical basis in the brain, and to a train of physical antecedents.
And now the men who have come up by the path of this knowledge stand face to face with the men who have been climbing in the path whose signboards are such as "Duty," "Worship," "Aspiration;" and the question arises, Do our paths lie henceforth together, or do they separate, and is the one party losing its travel?
Perhaps the best example of the union of the two pursuits in one man is given by Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin worked out, through a very genuine, homely, and personal experience, the conviction that moral perfection is the only true aim. He reached this conviction while still a young man, and in the main tenor of his life he was faithful to it. He made no vaunt of his religion, founded no sect, gave his words and deeds chiefly to practical affairs; and perhaps few guessed, until at the close of his life he told his own story with consummate charm, that the secret motive and mainspring of his life had been the same that animates the saints and saviors,—the thirst for moral perfection. The motive and method had been hidden, but the result had long been clear to the eyes of the whole world. Franklin's character was reverenced alike in the court of France and the farmhouses of Pennsylvania and New England. To the Old World he seemed the heroic and coming man of the New World, side by side with Washington. The Virginian embodied the highest traditional virtues of the race, self-mastery, patience, magnanimity, devotion to the common good; the Pennsylvanian, if less called on for the heroic forms of antique virtue, added to its substance new traits of wisdom, progress, and happiness,—signs of a better age to be.
Moral perfection was Franklin's secret and ruling principle. But his life was conspicuously engaged in the fields of science and of statesmanship. He was a leader in exploring the material world, skillful to trace its secrets, fertile to apply them to human use. He was a pioneer and founder of the new nation, projecting its union before others had desired or dreamed of it; sharing in its first hazardous fortunes; winning by his personal weight and wisdom the foreign alliance which turned the scale of victory; laying with the other master shipwrights the keel and ribs of the new Constitution. Moral perfection for himself, and, as the outcome to the world, not a new church or a theology or a missionary enterprise, but a winning of the forces of nature to the service of man, and a shaping of the social organism for the benefit of all. That is the originality of Franklin,—that he carries the old moral purpose into the new fields of science and of social ordering. His desire for moral perfection and his confidence that the universe is ordered rightly are not dependent on any visionary scheme of heaven and hell; they rest not on any doubtful argument; they bring sanction from no transport mixed of soul and sense. He walks firm on the solid earth. He has found for himself that goodness is the only thing that satisfies. That this is an ordered universe comes home to him with every step of his study of actuality. What need of a supernatural religion to a man who finds religion in his own nature and in the nature of the world?
Such confidence and such purpose are as old as Socrates. But come, now, let us go where Socrates did not go; let us put the ideas of Jesus and Paul to some further application; let us use our freedom from pope and tyrant for some solid good! And so he goes on, cheerfully and delightedly, to question the thunder-cloud and make acquaintance with its wild steeds,—presently some one will put them in harness. He is always inventing. Now it is a stove, now it is a fire-brigade,—a public library,—a post-office,—a Federal Union! And be his invention smaller or greater, he takes out no patent, but tenders it freely into the common stock.
The prophets introducing this age are Carlyle and Emerson. Carlyle sees the disease—he convinces of sin. Emerson sees the solution. Carlyle reflects in his own troubled nature the disorder he portrays. He is physically unsound; his dyspepsia exaggerates to him the evils of the world. Emerson's disciplined and noble character mirrors the present and eternal order, and forecasts its triumph.
Carlyle and Emerson give two different phases of life as experienced. Carlyle gives the experience of good and evil,—the tremendous sanctions of right against wrong, wisdom against folly. He is not triumphant, but he is not hopeless. "Work, and despair not" is to him "the marching music of the Teutonic race." Emerson, from the height of personal victory, sees all as harmonious. One shows the struggle up the mountain path, the other the view from the summit.
Carlyle's gospel is summed up in "Work, and despair not." "Work" was his own addition to Goethe's line. "Do the duty that lies nearest thee;" action, as the escape from the puzzles of the intellect and the griefs of the heart, is his special message.
Emerson is a precursor of the day when "No man shall say to his neighbors, Know ye the Lord, for all shall know him, from the least unto the greatest." He is the first of the prophets to rise above anxiety as to the success of his mission. He lives his life, says his word, sheds his light—concerned to be faithful, but wholly unanxious as to personal success.
As the tribes of ancient Israel stood arrayed, the one half on Mount Ebal, the other on Mount Gerizim,—the one to pronounce the blessing, the other to utter the curse,—so Emerson is like an embodied promise and Carlyle a perpetual warning. In Emerson we see the hero triumphant and serene. Carlyle shows him at close grips with the devil. "Pain, danger, difficulty, steady slaving toil, shall in no wise be shirked by any brightest mortal that will approve himself loyal to his mission in this world; nay, precisely the higher he is the deeper will be the disagreeableness, and the detestability to flesh and blood, of the tasks laid on him; and the heavier, too, and more tragic, his penalties if he neglect them."
The background for Emerson is the life of early New England. The secret of New England's greatness was the combination from the first of the profoundest interest in man's spiritual destiny with the closest grip on homely facts.
In Calvinism, and in Christianity, the universe was at eternal war within itself; this was man's projection upon the world of his own moral conflict. Emerson sees the universe as a harmony. Many influences have contributed to this idea; it becomes distinct and vivid in a man whose own life is a moral harmony. Himself truly a cosmos, he recognizes the answering tokens of the greater cosmos.
The religious sentiment had become so inwoven with institutions, creeds, usages, conventionalisms,—each man believing because his neighbors do, or his father did,—that it was necessary to take a new observation. What says the heart of man at its highest? For this Emerson is singled out; for him an ancestry is trained through generations; he is drawn apart from the church, set aside from government and all institutional work; practical functions are denied him; he is made an eye,—an organ of pure vision.
To him God is not afar off but in himself. The heart in its own purity, tenderness, and strength recognizes the Divine Presence. "The soul gives itself, alone, original, and pure, to the Lonely, Original, and Pure, who, on that condition, gladly inhabits, leads, and speaks through it." The order of physical nature is the symbol and the instrument of a moral order. The beauty and sublimity of nature are the manifestation through sense of the Divine Reality.
So high a revelation can come at first only to souls which in their greatness are isolated, as the highest mountain peaks stand alone in the earliest sunbeams. It is for a later time to fit such truth to all the conditions of human life, to fully assimilate it with older lessons, to weave it into the warp and woof of society.
It is Emerson, child of the Puritan and disciple of the new knowledge, in whom joy is most abiding—its roots are in faithful living, brave and high thinking, the spirit of love, oneness with nature and humanity.
Emerson dwells in an ideal yet real world. He cannot give the password that will certainly admit; inheritance and temperament must contribute to that. But he sees that one principle is the rightful sovereign in his inner world and in the universe,—allegiance to highest known law. It is a sublimation of the idea familiar to the religious mind, but he gives it a new and larger interpretation; for, in place of the written Word, beyond the social and civic obligation, greater than the accepted moralities, superseding the ecclesiastical virtues, wider than the overworked altruism of Christianity, is the complete ideal of Man, from his roughest force to his finest perception.
Talk about duty had become wearisome. "Thou shalt not preach!" says Emerson. So he discourses as the observer of man and nature, and bids men to look at realities.
His imitators were beguiled into a theoretical exposition of the universe. A sense of thinness and unreality accompanies much of their talk, because it is not, like Emerson's, in constant touch with active duty and fresh observation.
His ideal includes worship, but to this he brings above all the quality of sincerity. He will not observe a sacrament which has lost its significance to him. He will not use language of a personal God which is not natural to him, nor affirm a certainty as to immortality when his conviction is not always clear. But he has the profoundest sense and the simplest expression of that reality which we call "the presence of God in man." In him it is not involved with miracle or metaphysic; it is a personal experience, the source of humility, energy, and peace. "I recognize the distinction of the outer and inner self; the double consciousness that within this erring, passionate, mortal self sits a supreme, calm, immortal mind, whose powers I do not know, but it is stronger than I; it is wiser than I; it never approved me in any wrong; I seek counsel of it in my doubts; I repair to it in my dangers; I pray to it in my undertakings. It seems to me the face which the Creator uncovers to his child."
Emerson represents thought in its highest form—perception, vision. The world interpreted by such vision supplies motive, support, and rapture. He is essentially and above all a poet, and to whoever can follow him he opens a celestial world in which the homeliest earthly fact is irradiated by indwelling divinity.
Emerson's escape from evil is by rising to such a height of contemplation that evil is seen as only an element of good. He sits like an astronomer, viewing the procession of the worlds in their sublime harmony. For most men, the jar and dust of daily life largely shut out that glorious view. They catch hope and strength from the voice of the seer upon his heights. But they need other help; they need some one by their side; they need the love of a stronger brother, who takes their hand. This men found in Jesus the friend of sinners, who went about doing good; they idealized it as Christ—a divinity who took upon him the form of a servant. The higher stooping to the lower is still the world's salvation.
In teaching, Emerson generalized for all men from his own experience. He said, "Be yourself! Follow the law of your own nature. Trust the all-moving Spirit. Be above convention and rule, above vulgarities and insipidities. Give way to the God within you!"
Literally obeyed, it was insufficient advice for most men, for it ignored what Emerson's modesty forbade him to recognize,—the vast difference between his own nature and bent and that of most men. When ordinary men and women tried to imitate him the result was sometimes a lamentable failure. But he was genuine and lofty always. He failed in no homely duty. The great trial and discipline to him was the alternation in himself of the commonplace with the high. In individuals he was forever disappointed, always looking for heroes, saints, and saviors, and seldom finding them. His own work bore little visible fruit; his own teaching fell for a long time on scornful ears. This perpetual disappointment he took with perpetual constancy, always serene under disappointment, gracious to the dull, indifferent to fame, careless of his own obscurity. The typical man of letters has his own besetting sins,—neglect of homely duties, self-consciousness, vanity,—from all of which Emerson was free.
The faults we allege against his philosophy—its scanty recognition of sin and sorrow—were the natural incidents of his character and work. They do not debase, though they sometimes limit, his influence for good; his is always the speech of an angel; it strengthens, uplifts, gladdens us. There are other angels to whom we must listen,—others, perhaps, who speak more nearly the speech of our own experience,—but his music always chords with theirs.
In Emerson, a soul inheriting centuries of Catholic and Puritan training, until obedience was its instinct and purity its native atmosphere,—a soul endowed with genius,—spread its wings and flew with the suddenness and joy of a young bird's first flight. He saw good everywhere, beauty everywhere, and was glad with the gladness of a seer and savior. He is one of those of whom he speaks, as belonging to a better world which is yet to come, and who touch us with a sense of a heaven on which we are just beginning to enter.
Though he professes an idealist philosophy, and that way of thinking can be traced in all his writings, he never makes of it a creed or dogma. His children are welcome to worship in the church which has lost its attraction for him. The skeptic may freely question immortality,—nay, Emerson himself sometimes feels uncertainty. The personal God, and man's personal immortality, which the idealist is wont to affirm as definite certainties, Emerson will not explicitly avow or define. Universal good, beauty, order,—these he sees, feels, is sure of. What form belongs to them, let each imagine as best he can. So free, so generous, so simply true is he that not only men of an idealist way of thinking, but all strong and high souls own impulse from him,—the scientist, the positivist, the churchman.
His distinctive note is not self-abnegation, but it is the note which with that makes a perfect harmony. Joy in God and self-sacrificing love are the two wings of the angelic life. Long have the preachers taught self-sacrifice,—now let one child of God sing the joy of God!
The latest chapter in the story of the higher life is the conception of man and the world which has grown up under the influence of modern science. The most original and effective expression of this philosophy is given by Herbert Spencer. What new light does the evolutionary philosophy throw on man's chief problem, the right conduct of his own life?
First, it defines with clearness two great forces which bear on the individual life, as Heredity and Environment. Next, it defines the ideal to be sought, by reaffirming in substance the familiar conception of human morality, showing its sanctions on purely natural grounds, and giving new applications and extensions of its principles. And finally, compared with the traditional theology, it leads to a new conception of the relation between man and the higher power, and necessitates, what Spencer does not supply, a new expression of the religious life.
The discovery of Darwin, supplying the final link to the growing proofs of the evolutionary development of man, opened an amazing panorama of the past history of the planet's inhabitants. The predecessors and successors of Darwin added to the panorama one after another scene of wonder. The standpoint of thought seemed wholly changed, and a readjustment necessary which threatened overthrow to all the old creeds and standards. Spencer, who has been the most successful in generalizing the new knowledge, comes back to the inquiry, By what law shall man guide his own conduct? His answer is substantially a reaffirmation of the principles which good men have acknowledged for many ages. Whatever else is changed, it remains true that justice, fidelity, chastity, honor, regard for others, are man's safest guides and his lawful rulers. Altruism is only a new word for the golden rule. But the advance of society has brought wider and finer applications: the claim of the whole community comes closer home; the principles which have been recognized within the church and the neighborhood must be carried on to reshape institutions, industries, the whole social organism.
The moral idea is thus reaffirmed and extended, but how can man attain that ideal? By using his free will, said the Stoic. By the grace of God obtained through prayer, said the Christian. Is man then free, or is he the passive creature of a greater power, and of what nature is that power? Now, where theologians have sought to define the Deity, and to conceive his government of his creatures in terms of a personal affection and will, scientists, contenting themselves with observation of facts, have shown that each man is what he is and does what he does partly because of what his parents and remoter ancestors were and did before him, and partly because of the forces of climate, institutions, education, companionship, event, which surround him from his birth to his grave. Heredity and Environment, these are
"the hands That reach through Nature, moulding Man."
It looks at first as if the old dispute between free will and necessity were settled at last, and man were indeed a creature of inscrutable fate. Yet, in the very act of acknowledging certain ideals of character as desirable, we become conscious of an impulse and initial effort—call it automatic or call it voluntary—toward attaining those ideals. As a matter of practice, we speedily recognize that both Heredity and Environment are in a degree under human control. If they are deities, they are accessible to prayers, the prayers which are watchfulness and obedience. Man is always at work to better the environment of himself and his fellows. As he sees more clearly that his true good is character and the noble self, he shapes his environment more intelligently and resolutely to that end. As to heredity, while the individual is powerless over his own lot, he is in a degree potential over those who are to succeed him. The conception of duty is enlarged by the obligations of marriage and parenthood, in a wise selection and thoughtful care for the future offspring.
Heredity and Environment, then, are partly the servants of man. Yet largely they are his lords and masters. In a degree, but only in a degree, do we make ourselves what we are. And while the degree of that self-determining power can never be known, we learn to be charitable toward others and exacting toward ourselves.
The new philosophy has its chief bearing on conduct, not in abstract conceptions about fate, free will, and responsibility, but in the stimulus it gives to find new tools and weapons of moral achievement. How shall we make men good? No longer by the mere appeal to reason; no longer mainly by promise of heaven and threat of hell. Still appealing to reason, to hope and fear, to imagination, we must go on to put about men all stimulating influences, all guiding appliances. We must begin in the formative stage. The hope of the future is in the child; we must educate the child by putting him in true touch with realities,—realities of form, color, and number; of plant and animal life; of play and pleasure; of imagination; of sympathetic companionship; of a miniature society; of a firm yet gentle government. The education must go on through youth, and must introduce him to industry not as drudgery but as fine achievement. So of every phase of humanity. The criminal is to be met not with mere penalty but with remedial treatment. In the sordid quarter must be planted a settlement which shall radiate true neighborhood. The state must be so ordered as best to promote the material good and the essential manhood of its citizens. The church must serve some distinct purpose—of ethical guidance, of emotional uplift, of social service—in character-building. Such are the forces to which we now are turning. Where ancient philosophy appealed through the lecturer at his desk, where Christianity sent its missionary to proclaim a faith, or set its priest to celebrate mass, or its minister to preach a sermon,—in place of these partial resources we now realize that every normal activity of humanity is to serve in building up man, and that "the true church of God is organized human society."
The church of God,—but has man a God? There is, says Spencer, some inscrutable power from which all this vast procedure springs; its nature we know not and cannot know. The thought of it moves us to wonder and awe,—and this is the legitimate satisfaction of the religious sense. And here it is that his philosophy utterly fails to satisfy. Yet it marks the passing away of the attempt to interpret Deity in terms of exact knowledge. Whatever form religion may hereafter wear, the old precision of statement must be abandoned; the intellect must be more humble. And further, the Spencerian view is wholly different from atheism. It leaves the door open. It recognizes that some supreme reality exists beyond and above man. That reality is not intelligible to the intellect which analyzes and generalizes. But may it not be approachable through another side of man's nature,—accessible through gates like those by which one human spirit recognizes another human spirit? The evolutionary philosophy, in an enlarged construction, raised no barrier against the access to divinity through the noblest exercise of humanity.
Live the personal life toward the highest ideals, with the faithfulest endeavor,—and peace, trust, hope, spring up in the soul. So does man find access to the supreme power; so does he find himself encompassed and upborne by it; so is he drawn into closest union with his fellow-creatures and with the divine source of all. It is the old answer and the new; it is figured in the Hebrew's assurance that the Lord loveth the righteous; it gives strength and courage to Epictetus; it inspires the confidence of Jesus, the loving and holy soul finding its heavenly Father; it speaks with glad voice in Emerson,—"contenting himself with obedience, man becomes divine."
The essential truth is old, but in our day it is being disencumbered of the husk of myth and dogma which obscured it; while by the growth of new powers and finer sensibilities in man his access to highest reality becomes more intimate.
As the evolutionary philosophy has already reaffirmed, clarified, and enriched the moral life, so, blending with the clearest interpretation of man's deepest experience, it is to reaffirm, purify, and deepen the religious life.
One disciple of Spencer has applied herself with great genius and art to creative fiction. George Eliot is a thorough Spencerian, and she is constantly, effectively, almost with over-insistence, a moralist. Life may be ruined by self-indulgence,—that is her perpetual theme. Of wide range and variety, she is powerful above all in picturing the appeal of temptation, the gradual surrender, the fatal consequence. Shakspere does not show the inner springs of the fall of Macbeth or Angelo so clearly as she shows the catastrophe of Arthur Donnithorne, of Tito Melema, of Gwendolen Harleth. Readers from whom the threat of hell would fall off as an old wife's tale, feel the dark power of reality in the mischief which dogs each of her wrong-doers. More scantly, and with growing infrequence, there are scenes of a natural gospel of redemption and salvation,—Hetty reached in her misery by the Christian love of Dinah, Silas Marner won back to happiness by the little child, Gwendolen saved from her selfishness through dire disaster and a strong man's help.
The prevailing atmosphere of George Eliot's later books is sad, and the sadness deepens as they go on. A labored, over-strenuous tone increases; the style loses in simplicity and is overburdened with reflection. The note of struggle is everywhere present, and shuts out repose, freedom, joy. The sensitive reader can hardly escape an undertone of suggestion,—yes, life must be made the best of, but it seems scarcely worth the cost. Is it the entire absence of any outlook beyond this life which makes the gloom of the later works? Yet this seems only partially to explain. One seeks inevitably the clew to the writing in the life. George Eliot's story as a woman is an open one. She took as her life companion a man who was legally united to another woman. Her justification apparently was that they were suited to each other, and that with the support of this mutual tie they could best do their work. Stated in plain terms, the moral question involved seems hardly to admit of any debate. There is no more vital point in social morality than the relation of the sexes, and George Eliot's own teaching reverts most often to this topic, and always with its emphasis on restraint. Her actual course assumed that the established and accepted law of society may be set aside by a man and woman upon their own judgment that their need of each other is paramount to the social law. A position more contradictory to her avowed principles could hardly be stated. It was no new claim of immunity; it had been professed and preached, especially on the Continent, with results patent to all, of the subversion of social foundations; it marks the especial danger-point of a time of swiftly changing standards. It is impossible not to feel that her course was a precedent and example in flat contradiction of the teaching she so assiduously gave. Doubtless she persuaded herself she was right, but such persuasion must have involved, the most dangerous sophistication which besets man in his groping struggle,—a claim by a leader for exemption from the common obligation on the plea that his welfare (that is, his comfort) is especially necessary for the good of mankind. As one reads George Eliot's pages with her own story in mind, the shadows are heavy. In the over-active, restless reflections, one feels the working of a mind incessantly exercised by its own self-defense. The suggestion comes to us of a nature which has lavished all its energies on thinking, and lacked strength for living, and so has failed of that vision which comes not from thought but from life. The cramping horizon, the low sky, the earthly limit within which love saddens and hope dies,—all seem to bespeak that loss of truest touch with the universe which comes when one is not true in act to the law he acknowledges. The sense of a tragedy in herself, more pathetic than any she has depicted, touches us with awe, with tenderness, with compunctious thought of our own failures. We are "purified by terror and by pity."
The largest wisdom and the finest insight of our age are blended in Tennyson's "In Memoriam." Written half a century ago, its truth not less than its beauty stands unshaken by the later thought and knowledge. Antedating the work of Darwin and Spencer, it accepts the principles of Evolution. Its atmosphere is wholly modern. It is pervaded by the sentiment of Christian faith, but it does not lean for support on dogma or miracle. The difficulties it encounters are neither the terror in the old view of the hereafter nor the problems incident to the supernatural theology. The poet stands before the amazing spectacle of nature as seen by science, beholding along with its prodigal beauty its appalling destruction and its unswerving march. It is no longer hell, but extinction, which seems to threaten man.
The intellectual problem of the universe is faced, but the medium through which it is seen is the experience of a human heart filled by a sacred love and then struck by bereavement. It is the old, typical, deepest experience of man,—love confronted by death.
The poem moves like a symphony, weaving together requiem, cradle-song, battle-march, and psalm, to a consummation of tender and majestic peace. As the recurrent theme which governs the whole may be taken this:—-
"How pure at heart and sound in head, With what divine affection bold, Should be the man whose thoughts would hold An hour's communion with the dead."
These are the conditions,—fidelity, sanity, divinely bold affections; this is the fruition, the sense of a mystic communion with the unseen friend.
One passage gives the reconciliation between the evolutionary view of the universe and a divine possibility for the individual. The evolutionary process of nature is regarded as the type of the development of the soul:—-
"Contemplate all this work of Time, The giant laboring in his youth; Nor dream of human love and truth, As dying Nature's earth and lime;
"But trust that those we call the dead Are breathers of an ampler day For ever nobler ends. They say, The solid earth whereon we tread
"In tracts of fluent heat began, And grew to seeming-random forms, The seeming prey of cyclic storms, Till at the last arose the man;
"Who throve and branched from clime to clime, The herald of a higher race, And of himself in higher place, If so he type this work of time
"Within himself, from more to more; Or, crowned with attributes of woe Like glories, move his course, and show That life is not as idle ore,
"But iron dug from central gloom, And heated hot with burning fears, And dipt in baths of hissing tears, And battered with the shocks of doom
"To shape and use. Arise and fly The reeling Faun, the sensual feast; Move upward, working out the beast, And let the ape and tiger die."
Thus do the moral purpose and the immortal hope define themselves in the terms of the new philosophy. How are they related to the terms of the old religion? The poet's attitude toward the historic Christ is wholly reverent. Incidents of the gospel story are vivified by a creative imagination. But Christ is no longer an isolated historic fact; he is the symbol of all divine influence and celestial presence,—"the Christ that is to be." The resurrection story is reverently touched, but it is not upon this as a proof or argument that the poet dwells in regaining his lost friend under a higher relation. That experience is to him personal, at first hand. His comfort is not solely that in some future heaven he shall rejoin his Arthur. The beloved one comes to him now in moments of highest consciousness; associated profoundly, mysteriously, vitally, with the fairest aspects of nature, with the loftiest purposes of the will, with the most sympathetic regard of all fellow creatures.
In the experience which is supremely voiced in "In Memoriam," but which is also recorded in many an utterance which the attentive ear may discern, we recognize this: that the sense of the risen Christ which inspired his disciples and founded the church was in truth an instance—clad in imaginative, pictorial form—of what proves to be an abiding law of human nature—the vivid realization of the continued and higher existence of a noble and beloved life.
We may believe that in the progress of the race this faculty is being developed. In its first emergence it was confused by crude misinterpretations. A single instance of it was for two thousand years construed as a unique event, the reversal of ordinary procedure, and the basis of a supernatural religion. Now at last we correlate it with other experiences, and interpret it as a part of the universal order.
Tennyson expresses that present heaven which is sometimes revealed to the soul:—
"Strange friend, past, present, and to be; Loved deeplier, darklier understood; Behold, I dream a dream of good, And mingle all the world with thee.
"Thy voice is on the rolling air; I hear thee where the waters run; Thou standest in the rising sun, And in the setting thou art fair.
"What art thou, then? I cannot guess; But though I seem in star and flower To feel thee some diffusive power, I do not therefore love thee less:
"My love involves the love before; My love is vaster passion now; Though mixed with God and Nature thou, I seem to love thee more and more.
"Far off thou art, but ever nigh; I have thee still, and I rejoice; I prosper, circled with thy voice; I shall not lose thee though I die."
Two men beyond all others in America have interpreted the higher life. Emerson revealed it through the medium of thought, beauty, and joy. Lincoln showed it in action, sympathy, and suffering.
Lincoln had the deepest cravings of love, of ambition, and of religion. His love brought him first to bereavement which shook his reason, then to the daily tragedy of an unhappy marriage. His ambition—he said when he entered his contest with Douglas—had proved "a failure, a flat failure." In his crude youth he exulted in the rejection of Christianity; then he felt the pressure of life's problems, and was powerless before them. He could believe only what was proved,—all beyond was a sad mystery. He bore himself for many years with honesty, kindness, humor, sadness, and infinite patience. He did not for a while rise to the perception of the highest truth in politics, but he was faithful to what he did see. He lived in closest contact with ordinary men and knew them thoroughly. His training was as a lawyer and a politician. This brought him in touch with the every-day actuality and all its hard and mean facts. He was disciplined in that attempt to reach justice under a code of laws which is the practical administration of society, distinct from the idealist's vision of perfection.
The time came when in the new birth of politics he rose to the perception of a great moral principle,—the nation's duty toward slavery. At the same time, his ambition again saw its opportunity. He had a strong man's love of power, but he deliberately subordinated his personal success to his convictions when he risked and lost the fight with Douglas for the senatorship by the "house-divided-against-itself" speech.
In the anxious interval between his election and inauguration, he went through, as he said long afterward, "a process of crystallization,"—a religious consecration. He made no talk about it, but all his words and acts thenceforth show a selfless, devoted temper.
He bore incalculable burdens and perplexities for the sake of the people. He met the vast complication of forces which mix in politics and war—the selfishness, hatred, meanness, triviality, along with the higher elements—with the rarest union of shrewdness, flexibility, and steadfastness. His humor saved him from being crushed. The atmosphere he lived in permitted no illusions. "Politics," said he, "is the art of combining individual meannesses for the general good."
He came to the sense of a divine purpose in which he had a part. He grew in charity, in sympathy, in wisdom. His private griefs, such as the death of his boy, deepened his nature. He bore burdens beyond Hamlet's,—a temperament prone to melancholy, the death of the woman he loved, a wife who was little comfort, an ambition which long found no fruition and no adequate field, a baffled gaze into life's mystery; then the responsibility of a nation in its supreme crisis, and the sense of the nation's woe. Through it all he held fast the clew of moral fidelity.
A lover of peace, he was forced to be captain in a terrible war. "You know me, Voorhees," he said to an old friend; "I can't bear to cut off the head of a chicken, and here I stand among rivers of blood!"
Under overwhelming perplexities and responsibilities, amid a ceaseless drain on his sympathies, he learned and practiced a higher fidelity and deeper trust. At the outset was "the process of crystallization;" at the end came "malice toward none, charity for all," "fidelity to the right as God gives us to see the right." At last the sunrise of the nation's new day shone full upon him. Then suddenly, painlessly, he passed into the mystery beyond. He was loved by his people as they never loved any other man. The world prizes its happy souls, but it takes to its inmost heart him who is faithful in darkness.
 Jowett's translation.
 I have followed George Long's translation of Epictetus.
 In the language of Renan: "By this word [supernatural] I always mean the special supernatural act, miracle, or the divine intervention for a particular end; not the general supernatural force, the hidden Soul of the Universe, the ideal, source, and final cause of all movements in the system of things."
The virtue of truth-seeking is a modern growth. The love of speculative truth, indeed, shines far back in antiquity, in individuals or in little companies. But the truth-seeking quality has had its special training through the pursuits of physical science. The achievements of three centuries in this direction have been made under the constant necessity of attention to reality, at whatever cost to prepossession or desire. Watchfulness, patience, self-correction are the requisites. There is the discipline of what Huxley calls "the perpetual tragedy of science,—the slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact." This courage, patience, humility of the intellect, long exercised on secondary problems, wrought into habitual and accepted traits of the explorer, are called on at last to face the direst ordeal. The human mind confronts the question, "Are my dearest faith and love and hope based on reality?" To face that question, and face it through; to yield to no despondency, however dark the answer; to hold sometimes the best attainable answer, whether of affirmation or denial, as only provisional, and wait for further light, whether it come now or in a remote future, whether it come to him or to some other,—this measures the greatness of the human spirit.
It is in this respect that our moral standards, compared with those of Christendom for eighteen hundred years, have in a sense undergone not merely a development but reversal. In that passage upon charity in which the genius of early Christianity wings its highest flight, one note alone wakes no response in us. "Charity beareth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." Amen! But at "believeth all things" we draw back. For us, the word must read "proveth all things."
So long as moral obligation was based solely on the sanction of a supernatural world; so long as the condemnation of murder and theft and adultery was supposed to rest on the fact that God gave two tables of stone to Moses; so long as brotherhood and hope and trust ascribed their charter to an incarnate Deity,—so long a belief in the charter and its history seemed the first requirement, the necessary condition of morality. But to the modern mind the first and great commandment is to see things as they are. The foundation of our morality, our happiness if we are to be happy, our trust and worship if we are to have a trust and worship,—in any event, our rule of life, our guide and law,—must be, follow the truth. No sect monopolizes that principle. It was orthodox old Nathaniel Taylor who used to bid his students, "Go with the truth, if it takes you over Niagara!"
The question presents itself to man: "Is the Power that rules the universe friendly to me?" It certainly does not offer the kind of friendship which man instinctively asks. It does not give the friendship which saves from pain, which insures ease, pleasure, unchecked delight. Not an indulgent mother, certainly.
The starting-point for getting the question truly answered must be a practical acceptance of the highest rule and ideal known to man. Accepting that and following it, he rises higher and higher. He feels himself in some inward accord with the moving forces of the universe. The prime requisite is for him to obey, to do the right, be the heavens kindly or hostile or indifferent. Just so, long before man knew anything of the general laws of nature, he planted and reaped, struggled for food and clothing, took care for himself,—he must do long before he comprehends. So he must work righteousness and love, God or no God. And in the summoning voice within him, the play upon him of powers forever urging him to choose the right,—powers to which he grows more and more sensitive as his effort is earnest,—in this he comes to recognize some reality which has to him more significance and impressiveness than any other thing in the world.
The working principle of the modern mind is that the universe is orderly. Everything has its place and meaning. Man discerns in his personal life this much of clear meaning, that he is to strive toward the noblest ideal. As he accepts that, the conviction comes home to him that in the highest sense the universe is friendly, for it is attracting, urging, compelling him to the realization of his highest dreams.
The highest intellect is always serene. Shakspere and Emerson stand at the summit of human thought and vision; unlike as they are, both view the spectacle of life with an intense interest, and a great though sober cheer. If we analyze the elements which Shakspere portrays, we might incline to judge that the sadness outweighs the joy. But the impression left by his pages is somehow not sad. Some deeper spirit underlies and penetrates. Back of Lear's heartbreak, Hamlet's bewilderment, Othello's despair, we feel some presence which upholds our courage. It is the mind of the writer, so lofty and wise that it is not daunted by all the terrors it beholds, and which conveys to us its own calm.
In a like mood, we may often look for ourselves on the drama of real life, profoundly stirred by its comedies and tragedies, but not overwhelmed,—least overwhelmed when our sight is clearest.
The sense of assurance—not of mere safety from special harm, but the uplift of some unspeakable divine reality—comes in presence of the grandest scenes of nature,—mountain or ocean or sunset. They supply an external image, answering to some faculty in the soul. And when through failure of sense or spirit the vision is obscured, the soul becomes conscious in itself of that to which mountain and ocean are but servants,—the reserve power to endure and to conquer which springs to life at the stern challenge.
The deepest assurance comes not as an intellectual view nor as an impression from the sublimities of nature. It is the outcome of the severest conflicts and the heaviest trials. We cannot explain the process, but we see in others or feel in ourselves this: that out of the hardest struggle in which we have held our ground comes the deepest peace. What serenity is to the intellectual life, that to the moral life is this "peace which passeth understanding," this blending of gladness and love. It is not a passive condition, but of the highest potential energy,—the parent of all great achievements and patient fidelities.
The soul learns to draw courage, trust, joy, and hope from its resolute encounter with realities, without leaning on any explanation. It is the onlooker only who despairs. Literature, so much the work of on-lookers, exaggerates the depression. Men of action, toilers, helpers, fathers, mothers, saints,—these do not despair. The world as a whole, and the best part of the world, lives a life of action, feeling, exercise of every faculty,—which generates courage, strength, tenderness. Under all the confusion and wrong, there are still the deep springs of that same experience, that "peace of God" which always fed the highest life.
There is an experience sometimes felt of perfect assurance, peace, and joy. It is "love which casteth out fear,"—the sense of being "God's child;" it is communion with the Highest.
This is the heart of religion. It is known to "babes and sucklings," unknown to many otherwise very learned people. It speaks with an absolute authority the message of love and peace, of joy and hope.
The mind is wont to clothe this message in some crude form, which serves to convey it to others, but is like the alloy which makes the pure gold workable, yet debases it.
This gladness of the spirit was the gospel of Jesus. He had it as no one ever had it before. His followers caught it. They debased, necessarily, but they spread it. They worshiped it in him, made him their leader, master, and finally their God. They loved him as a present reality, while they treasured the record of his human words. In such exaltation, like the intoxication of a heavenly wine, the untrained mind is creative in its ecstasy; hence the beautifully conceived and easily believed stories of announcing angels, miracles of healing, bodily resurrection.
Then came a long development of dogma and church,—much of obscuration, much of degeneracy. Through it all survived the truths that love is supreme, and that the law of life is goodness sublimed to holiness.
The revivals of religions have been the rediscovery of the glad truth, freed each time from some accompanying error.
The discovery of Luther was that the soul's life in God was possible outside of the Catholic church. Others had found this, too, but he made it a militant truth, and successfully revolted.
Calvinism was partly a reversion; its emphasis on sovereignty was tyrannical, but it trained the mind in exact and intense thought.
Fox, after long searchings amid sects and parties, made the new discovery again,—God's spirit given directly, freely to man! Hence a sort of intoxication in the early Quaker, sobering to a sweet religion.
Always, in the various churches,—Roman, English, Genevan, Lutheran,—was something of the divine fire, though often hidden and choked.
In the Wesleys, the saving and seeking love of Christ was the form the revival took; and with this went "free grace," as against fatalism which crushed the will.
Edwards had something of the love-element, but it was fettered by his Calvinism. His main service was to stimulate religious thought, which, from a Calvinistic basis, worked out through Hopkins to Channing.
The revival in Liberal Orthodoxy is essentially a recognition of the true character of Jesus, and an idealization and enthronement of this as the sovereign ideal, with a clinging as yet to the supernatural basis, which inevitably grows weaker.
Meanwhile, new "ways into the Infinite" have been opened,—through nature, as by Wordsworth; through humanity by Emerson.
Science has swept away the whole supernatural machinery with which this inner life of the soul has been connected in men's minds. It finds everywhere order, growth, a present rooted in the past and flowering into the future. Opening immense vistas for the race, it sometimes seems to shrivel the individual to a transient atom.
But still there wells up in the heart of man the mysterious, profound, irresistible gladness in its Divine source,—the love that casts out fear. We may look at it soberly, assign it place, limit it in a way; it can no longer give us a cosmogony, but unimpaired is its message, "Obey and rejoice!" We correlate its impulse with the sense of moral obligation and the code of ethics which has grown up in the world's sober experience. We learn to cultivate the religious sense more wisely than of old. We make bodily health its minister. We administer and reorganize civil society, instead of confining ourselves to the church. We open our hearts to the revelation of nature and humanity. And we wait patiently the slow coming of the Kingdom; the slow growth of religion in our own character; the slow upbuilding of human societies.
Side by side with this slow process lies always the present heaven into which at times the soul enters and finds perfect peace,—a peace which embraces past, present, and future, time and eternity. We study and practice obedience, diligence, patience; and at unforeseen moments, under shocks or in highest tranquillity, comes the divine revelation.
The belief that the perfect life had actually been lived by Christ was a help to men whose aspiration felt itself unsuccessful,—the very height of the aspiration deepening the sense of failure. The mind fastened on an actual and perfect goodness outside of itself. The Stoic ideal kept a man self-watchful, giving him no higher personality to look up to. There was in Christianity the feeling that the perfect life has been lived, and this somehow may help to save me. This was the core of the Atonement. All theories of it—ransom, substitution, and the like—were intellectual explanations of the fact of experience.
Forgiveness is the soul's delighted sense that its sin is not mortal. It comes only after sin has been felt as a burden. Conscious of wrong-doing, man feels helpless and even accursed,—imagines or credits stories of a fall, of measureless guilt, and an endless hell. What gives poignancy to these ideas is the real sense of wrong-doing, which projects a monstrous and exaggerated shadow.
The sense of duty, constantly worked, breeds in sensitive souls the despair of an unattainable perfection. The outward ceremonial does not help or enrich,—the moral and spiritual ideal tantalizes by its impossibility. This happens even to the strenuously righteous. In the gross wrong-doer, especially if he falls under the ban of society, there is wrought a despair which probably expresses itself in a hardened recklessness.
Among these "lost sheep" came Jesus as a friend. His love divined the deeper soul within them,—its yearning for the good it had perhaps ceased even to struggle for,—its untouched possibilities. He said, "Be of good cheer! Thy sins be forgiven thee! Go in peace!" At his word and touch, a new life sprang up in them,—a new force lifted humanity in its lowest depths.
To this new sense of life out of death Jesus gave the name of Your Father's love. He typified it in the parable of the Prodigal Son. And as the appropriate attitude for this recovered sinner, he set, not merely a glad and thankful acceptance of the gift, but the passing of it on to others. He bound inseparably the receiving and the giving. "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."
Just the experience of the pardoned miser or harlot came to Paul when he saw that in his pride and willfulness he had been persecuting the holy and innocent, yet felt himself reached and loved and restored by that same innocent and holy soul.
The experience was constantly repeated in the early church. It was the most striking of all those genuine "miracles"—the wonders of spiritual creation and growth—which were the wealth of the Christian society.
At the most dark and depressing hour of that society; when in gaining dominion it had lowered its purity, and before the barbarian invasion the whole social fabric shook,—that same miracle of a divine love, realized as a saving and transforming force, was wrought in the great personality of Augustine, and inspired through him anew the life of the church.
The intellectual vestment of this experience—the form under which the crude thought of these men gave it body and substance—was the Incarnation and the Atonement. Those doctrines have lasted through all changes, even until this day, because of the pearl of truth cased in their rough shells.
When now we try to express that truth in its simplicity—finding always a great difficulty in putting in articulate words the deep things of the spirit—we say that the man who sees and sorrows for and seeks to escape from his wrong deed or habit may come into the consciousness that he will escape,—may feel with a profound assurance that he is upborne by some power of good which will save him and bless him. He is recoverable; he is lovable; he is loved, and shall be saved. And the way in which that consciousness is awakened is oftenest by the contact of some soul which the sinner reverences as better than himself, which knows his guilt and loves him in spite of it, and declares to him that he shall live and recover. The minister of forgiveness may be a mother or a wife; it may be the sincere priest speaking to the sincere penitent; it may be Christ or Madonna; it may be the unnamed Power whose token is the sunset, or the rainbow, or the voice within the heart.
The especial limitation of Christianity at its birth was the expectation of the speedy ending of the existing order. Hence an indifference to such subjects, belonging to permanent human society, as industry, government, knowledge, the control of the forces of nature.
As to all these, the limitations of Christianity hindered its progress; as to each, the natural and secular world exercised an influence unconfessed or striven against; as to each, the perception was reached that it must be recognized by religion, until in our day the Here and Now takes the foreground in place of the Hereafter. The personal life in its present relations, the human society under earthly conditions,—these give to us the main field and problem. The hereafter of the individual gives background and atmosphere.
For "holy living and dying" we put simply holy living. To give fullness and perfection to each day, each act, is all and is enough. The thought of death should not swerve or alter a particle. When the last hour of life comes, what retrospect shall we wish? Only to have filled life with the best.
The religious emotion will often and freely personify, and must do so. The highest feeling takes on a quality of love, and love goes to a personal object. It is sometimes as toward one divine friend and God, sometimes toward the one beloved human being, sometimes the Christ, sometimes a universe of living and loving beings. These are distinctions of form rather than of substance, the expression by different minds of the same reality.
To the modern mind, the distinct personification of deity is less natural than formerly. The very vastness of the Infinite, as we conceive it, precludes this definite personalizing of it as a habitual mode of thought or basis of conduct. Yet under lofty and high-wrought emotion, the yearning of the soul toward the Supreme Power often breaks spontaneously into the language of personality. In the exquisite sense of deliverance from sharp trouble,—when the trouble itself seems more than justified by the heightened gladness, as in Titian's Assumption the face of the Virgin Mother shines in the welcome of that heaven to which the way has led through all earthly and motherly sorrow,—in such emergence, the heart utters again the very words of the Psalmist: "I love the Lord, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications. The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me; I found trouble and sorrow. Then called I upon the name of the Lord, O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul! Gracious is the Lord and righteous; yea, our God is merciful. Return unto thy rest, O my soul, for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with me. For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling."
If we would weigh and measure the value of mankind, we have no scales or measures. As much is to be said for the badness of men as for their goodness. Still more impossible is it to trace their individual responsibility for what they are. But the determination of the value of mankind, even the lowest, is by a different process from that of the speculative intellect. Are men worthy of love? Love them, and you shall know! The attitude of love vindicates itself. No one who has heartily given himself to the service of others turns back saying, "They are not worth it."
Encompassing light creates in the developing creature an eye. So encompassing love—human love—draws out response in its object, makes it lovable.
One class of truths are certain for all and at all times. These are such as: the excellence and authority of the highest moral ideal; the obligations of purity, truth, and honesty; love as the true attitude; receptivity toward knowledge, beauty, and humor.
There are other perceptions which vary greatly in their frequency and vividness. They are impulses of reassurance, joy, hope, victory. They surpass all other sources of strength and comfort.
They cannot, in their clearness and fullness, be transferred or expressed; they cannot even, by the mind experiencing them, be resolved into intellectual propositions.
They are not peculiar to what we usually call religion. The experience of love between man and woman opens a new world. So does music; so do all the finer forms of happiness.
All these, when they come, are felt as gifts,—as revelations. They are not within our direct and immediate command.
What relation do they bear to the life which is within our command,—to our deliberate, purposeful, self-ordered life? First, in that life we cultivate the two traits which fit us for the vision, though they do not command it,—sensitiveness and self-control.
So no man or woman can foresee whether the love of wedlock shall come to them, but each can render himself worthy of love, and no high experience of love is possible except to one trained long beforehand in purity and unselfishness.
Next, these higher moods, when they come, should be accepted as giving law to the unillumined hours. They do not change, but they intensify, the aim at rightness of life, and they add to it the spirit of courage, of trust, of joy.
The hope of immortality—the assurance of some good beyond, which we express by "immortality"—is born from a sense of the value of life. Life is felt to be precious as it is consecrated by the moral struggle in ourselves, and as it is viewed in others with sympathy. We give our moral effort and our sympathy, and these are encountered by the tremendous play of human joys and sorrows, and the result is a sense of life as intensely significant.
The feeling of communion with Christ, with angels and saints,—its natural basis is the reverence and love for great souls. As such reverence and love is deep, and as death removes the objects, the sense of a continued communion arises spontaneously. No form of our consciousness is more vivid and profound than this. It has a background of mystery,—mystery scarcely deeper or other than that which envelops the earthly love. What do I love in the friend whom here I see? Is it the individuality, or that higher power of which it transmits a ray?
The sense of this blending of the human and divine does not weaken or perplex our affection for the friend we see; it intensifies and sublimates it. So, in the sense of communion with the unseen friend, it disturbs us not that we cannot say how much is there of the remembered personality, how much of the one eternal deity. The essence of what we loved and love is sure and undying.
The creature succeeds as its functions and organs become fitted to its environment. Man succeeds as he fits himself to a moral environment. To the undeveloped man the world is full of forces which are hostile or indifferent to his right action; a thousand things distract him from doing right; he is like a creature in a watery world with half-developed fins. But as a man becomes morally developed he finds moral opportunity everywhere,—finds occasion for service, for admiration, gratitude, reverence, hope. This moral development includes the whole man: he needs a good body; he needs much that only inheritance can supply. His own effort is one factor, not the sum of factors. We must be patient with ourselves,—accept our inevitable imperfections as part of the grand plan, and find a joy in what is above and beyond ourselves.
Man first solves the problem of his own life,—finds the key in devotion to the highest ideal of character,—finds the answer in moral growth following his effort, forgiveness meeting his repentance, human love answering his love, beauty meeting his desire, truth opening to his search, a support and assurance found in emergency.
Then, and only then, he can rightly study the world. For he must first have the standard of values in human life; he must have, too, the utter devotion to truth.
Studying the universe, he learns that man has come into being through the processes of material law,—that the aeons of astronomy and geology have been working toward his production. He finds that man develops into moral man, with the power of choice and of love; develops into a being loyal and sensitive to duty and to his kind. This type of man tends to become the universal type. Human goodness tends to spread itself. There is a society, living from age to age, of those devoted to the good of man: this sentiment grows purer, more enlightened, more enthusiastic; it is the heart of all reforms, all social progress; no equal power opposes it. It is combated by selfishness, greed, ignorance, violence, but these forces have no spiritual cohesion among themselves, no inner unity; they are destined to fall before the advance of the higher spirit.
Hand in hand with this advancing goodness goes advancing knowledge, growing sense of beauty, greater powers of happiness.
We see thus a power working for good through man, making him its instrument, absorbing him into itself.
The movement is continuous, from the star-mist to the saint.
This is one element in the sum of things. It is the element that man knows best. The lives of the gnat and the tiger he scarcely more than guesses at. Other possible existences than his own there may be, even within this mundane sphere, of which he knows nothing. Of humanity he knows something, and he sees that it is moved toward the goal of perfection.
The power which thus moves it he inevitably identifies with that which he has found urging himself toward goodness, touching him in his best estate with a sense of harmony, and sustaining him in all emergencies. To this Power of Good he devotes himself and trusts himself. His supreme prayer is, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done." He seeks to be used by this power for its own ends; better than any wish he can frame must be the end to which it works.
The final product of the world-forces, the flower of the universe, the child of God, is man, in his fidelity, tenderness, yearning. To him belong the saint's aspiration, the poet's vision, the mother's love. And this highest type, by all its finest faculties, reaches toward a hereafter.
The ruling power turns often a harsh face upon its creatures. There is unbounded suffering. There is the perpetual destruction of the individual. Even the moral growth meets obstacles often insurmountable; inheritance limits; circumstances betray; we see sudden falls and slow deterioration; whole races wane.
But we see that evil is somehow a stepping-stone to all our good. Heroism, piety, tenderness, have been born out of pain. The expectation of a hereafter gives hope that no individual moral germ is lost. And we see that the crowning victory of life is the persistence of man's good against the evil; as in the mother whose love the prodigal cannot exhaust; in the Siberian exile who will not despair; in Jesus when before the cross he prays, "Thy will be done." This is faith, this is the soul's supreme act,—the allegiance to good, the trust in good, in face of the very worst. Man, in that depth feels lifted by a power transcending himself. So, when the beloved is taken by death, the heart, in face of that loss, loves on; feels its love greater than that which has befallen; says, "O Death, where is thy sting! O grave, where is thy victory!"
The best living unites us closely and mysteriously with some greater whole of which we are a part. The three great faculties are knowledge, conduct, love. Knowledge finds always new objects, new connections, a more perfect and wonderful whole. Right conduct brings a sense of being in true relations,—of fulfilling some high destiny. Love blends the individual with the universal; its successive steps are the highest form of human education.
Christianity was a feminine religion in its virtues, as purity and tenderness; and also in its attitude of pure dependence, submission, petition. The masculine elements have not been duly recognized as religious, even when having a great place in the actual working of things,—self-reliance, physical hardihood, civic virtue, the pursuit of truth.
In her subject state, woman has learned piety. She brings that as she emerges into her free state, her gift to man, as his to her is strength and self-reliance.
The moral power of the dogmatic systems has been very limited. They pretended to all knowledge and all power, but they have only gone a little way to sweeten and purify human life. The "enthusiasm of humanity" advances society farther in a decade than the old religion did in a century.
We are taught by scientists the extreme slowness with which races have improved. But do we know how fast races or families can improve if brought in contact with the most helpful influences of other races or families? Has that experiment ever been fairly tried? Do not results with hardened convicts, with Indian and negro pupils, suggest that there may be an immense acceleration of moral progress?