The following lecture was given at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, June 28th, 1854, republished in the Richmond Enquirer, July 3rd, 1854.
If there be any one popular belief, gentlemen, which has clearly taken possession of the world in this last half century, which has reduced itself into a maxim, established itself as a truism, and got recognized not only as true, but almost as the only indubitable truth, it is the progress of this human species. In the whole world of morals, literature, politics, religions, what single dogma is there, commanding such universal undoubting belief as this most soothing and flattering article of faith – that we are, at all events, with all our faults, wiser, better, stronger, above all things, ‘happier’ than our ancestors?
If it were permitted us, at this period of the world—so late in the nineteenth century—to raise a question upon this so well-established principled, it seems to me that the inquiry would possess much interest for all men, and especially for such as compose the audience I now address, whose literary tastes and studies must have disposed them to generalization, must have led them to speculation (sometimes wild and wondering speculation) on the meaning of this world, and of the life we lead upon it—must have driven them to the doors of all oracles, human and divine, natural and preternatural, anxiously seeking solution of insoluble enigmas—passionately ‘shouting question after question into the Sybil Cave of Destiny,’ with no answer but the echo. Now, perhaps, amongst the other traditions, creeds, philosophies, the old and world-renowned axioms which are subjected to the daring speculation of these latter days, we may lawfully examine, or even call in question, this article of nineteenth century faith—namely; that the current century is the top and crown of centuries; is not only the heir of all the ages, but with the miraculous gift (denied to all former time) of seizing what is good in that heritage and rejecting what is evil—of appropriating all the wisdom and ignoring all the stupidities and insanities that have descended to us by the same title.
Especially one may say that this soothing doctrine of our own superiority is singularly liable to question, inasmuch as it is not old. Am I too conservative in venturing to hint that its novelty is against it? For assuredly if it be true, it is also new; and we of the present time are not only the fortunate owners of the property, but the discoverers also. The eighteenth century, the seventeenth had no suspicion of it; yet if we have sixty centuries to draw upon, to inherit from, and to boast over; they had fifty-nine and fifty-eight respectively. But they did not know their own happiness. The prevailing tone of all literature and all speculation since history began was rather a tone of mourning over a corrupt and decadent age—there runs through it all a sound of elegiac and dirge-like complaint over the degeneracy of the human race, over the failure of ancient valour and of pristine faith, the failure even of human bone and sinew, and of that antique beauty and simple majesty of body and soul which, to the imagination of our ancestors, peopled with demigods that immemorial age of gold.
Perhaps it is well that we have got rid of that superstitious reverence for the men who went before us, and have seen good reason to transfer the homage of our souls to our noble selves. But at any rate the fact is worth pondering, that we have the luck to live in the first age that has formally recognized itself as the wisest, happiest and best.
Supposing it to be even a flattering delusion, there must be some cause of this effect; ‘or rather say, a cause of this defect, for this effect defective comes by cause.’ To search out that cause, might lead us far; yet, I apprehend, it may be found. In the meantime, let me try to state the case as between the nineteenth century and the rest of the poor centuries, or, at least, make some approximation to the true statement. I make this attempt in no dogmatic spirit, though, for convenience, I may use dogmatic forms. He would be a cunning accountant, indeed, who should undertake to draw out a regular debtor and creditor account of the several ages with nature and fate, strike their respective balances, apportion their credit, and ascertain their solvency or declare them bankrupt. It will be an enterprise quite venturous enough, and, perhaps, needing no little presumption to present some few points of comparison, some few prominent features of ancient and of modern life, in such a manner as may beget reflection and suggest here and there an approximate conclusion.
No word so wearies the ear of the age, as the word ‘Civilization,’ – a word vague in meaning, barbarous in form, a hybrid word, a word with a Latin head and a Greek tail; and like hundreds of other new-fangled words, on that principle, dubious and confused in its acceptation. We are assured in all books, from all pulpits and platforms, in all the leading articles, even in the very advertisements, that ‘Civilization’ (whatever the thing is) has been making great strides of late years; and that the same is much to our comfort and advantage. And what, then, is ’Civilization?’ Etymologically, to be sure, it means the culture of those capacities and those virtues which fit a man to be a good citizen; which qualify him to live as a member of a society or community. It means the high development of those social virtues, which enable society adequately to discharge its main function—that is to prevent wrong-doing and ensure justice, first between man and man, next between nation and nation. And does not this seem to you not only to be the true meaning of the word Civilization, but also to be the true substantial aim, effort and end of all society, and (sofar as Man is a gregarious animal) of all educational legislation, politics and moral philosophies in the world? The highest Civilization in the world means simple justice, yet, if you ask the first ten men you may casually meet in a rail road car, what they mean by the Civilization they talk of, (for almost everybody talks of it and congratulates himself and his neighbours upon it) nine of them will tell you that it is steam, that it is electricity, that it is a printing press, that it is carpets and upholstery, that it is gunpowder or gas. One man, profounder than the rest, will perhaps answer that it is commerce—infinite imports, unbounded exports, and an unheard-of carrying trade; a world-embracing commerce that brings distant nations near, making them a family of mutually helpful brethren. Such is the current talk.
Now it is not altogether clear, that discoveries in Art and Science, how widely so ever applied and made subservient to men’s convenience, are any real improvement, demonstrate any real progress towards anything good, are Civilization, or so much as instruments or furtherances of Civilization. The printing press, or the electric-wire, is a material vehicle of thought, of wisdom, of nonsense or of vice, as the case may be. If a man tell a lie to one end of a wire, it will not come out truth at the other end. The rail road carries men very quickly upon their business, such as it is; be their errands good or evil, be their intents wicked or charitable. The sumptuous appointments of houses and carriages, are indeed a splendid garniture of life, if men do not forget the way to live the while. As for what is called commerce, certainly there is nothing intrinsically base or evil in trade and traffic, yet it may be said with at least equal truth, that there is nothing elevating, refining or purifying in it. ‘As a nail, saith the son of Sirach, sticketh fast between the corners of stones, so doth sin stick fast between buying and selling.’ However that be, certain it is, that there is no more ruthless tyrant on earth than the true commercial spirit; and the present age has seen more human beings slain in one nation, for the mere sake of commerce, in three years, than any thirty years’ war ever slew—more miserably and ignominiously slain, than war at its worst and wickedest could ever slay. By this same golden bond of commerce, nations can sometimes be brought only too close together, to the bitter cost of one, and the grievous corruption of the other. Commerce may be just or unjust, beneficent or cruel. Commerce is not an end, but means and, like all instruments wielded by human hands, will be often, perhaps oftenest, made the means to a base and evil end. Those States, also, whose greatness has been based on commerce, have usually come to a bad end. Witness Carthage. Witness Venice. And although the power and grandeur of England have not been built upon trade alone, yet year by year they have come to depend more and more upon that. For sake of trade and traffic, all national justice, all personal and individual justice, all social bonds of fraternity, and even of common humanity, have been made systematically to give way; until, as a keen, stern moralist has expressed it, the sole nexus between man and man has come to be cash payment. And now trade and traffic having corrupted and eaten out the old heart of England, are going too certainly to ruin the State and nation, making her place a blot and her name a hissing.
Listen to that same stern moralist giving an account of the condition of society in the country, which calls itself, and is called by the world, so Civilized, enlightened, prosperous and rich:
‘Descend where you will into the lower class, in town or country, by what avenue you will, by factory inquiries, agricultural inquiries, by revenue returns, by mining-labourer committees, by opening your own eyes and looking, the same sorrowful result discloses itself; you have to admit that the working body of this rich English nation has sunk, or is fast sinking, into a state to which, all sides of it considered, there was literally never any parallel. At Stockport Assizes, a mother and a father are arraigned and found guilty of poisoning three of their own children, to defraud a ‘burial society’ of some £3 5s. 0d., due on the death of each child; they are arraigned, found guilty; and the official authorities, it is whispered, hint that perhaps the case is not solitary, that perhaps you had better not probe farther into that department of things. Such instances are like the highest mountain-apex emerged into view, under which lies a whole mountain region and land, not yet emerged. A human mother and father had said to themselves, what shall we do to escape starvation? We are deep sank here in our dark cellar; and help is far—yes, in the Ugolino hunger-tower stern things happen. The Stockport mother and father think and hint: Our poor little starveling Tom, who cries all day for victuals, who will see only evil and not good in this world; if he were out of misery at once; he well dead, and the rest of us, perhaps, kept alive! It is thought, and hinted; at last it is done. And now, Tom being killed, and all spent and eaten, is it poor little starveling Jack that must go, or poor little starveling Will? – What a committee of ways and means!
In starved, sieged cities, in the uttermost doomed ruin of old Jerusalem, fallen under the wrath of God, it was prophesied and said, ‘The hands of the pitiful woman have sodden their own children.’ The stern Hebrew imagination would conceive no blacker gulf of wretchedness; that was the ultimatum of degraded, God-punished man. And we here, in modern England, exuberant with supply of all kinds, besieged by nothing if it be not by invisible enchantments, are we reaching that?’
Reaching that! Yes, indeed; for long since this Dantesque picture was drawn, the trade of strangling children for sake of the burial fees, became so common, that grand juries prosecuted the benevolent burial societies themselves as a nuisance, and recommended their abolition by law, lest Englishmen, descendants of the yeomen of Azincour, should turn into a generation of ghouls.
Take this one fact, because it is the most startling and hideous fact; and take England, because it is the richest, most successfully industrious, must gloriously civilized, as it believes, amongst all nations. And now, is this the progress we are to exalt over and glorify ourselves upon? What have the printing-press, and the electric telegraph, and the prosperous commerce done for these twelve hundred thousand workers, who sit sullen in the workhouses of England, with their hands lying idle in their bosoms? Say, have not those grand engines of what you call Civilization, and the state of society that have created—have not those very things lamed the cunning right hands of those twelve hundred thousand? What, but this very progress, has made ghouls of British fathers and mothers?
If I were to cross the channel, and picture to your imagination an island-channel, and green, beautiful place of sculls, such as any eyes have seen it, I might call on yon to set down another gloomy item to the debtor side of the nineteenth century’s account. Debtor, to two million human sacrifices immolated on the altar of commerce, – commerce for the sole sake of commerce, – an obscene god who was wont to be named Mammon, and reputed a fiend. If that thing which is called British Civilization has been, even in England, a failure, it has been in Ireland a fatal fraud and a wide-spreading desolation. Five hundred years ago (not to venture back into the times of mere mythical tradition) Ireland was in every sense a more civilized, more wealthy, more refined country than she is now. Before English law and social polity were forced upon that island, it is well known for those who have had opportunity to study the authentic annals of the time, that the Irish at that period, not only enjoyed more of the material luxuries which the daedal earth produces for mankind, more pleasant and nourishing food, more wine, mead, ale, milk, better and richer clothing, but also enjoyed and appreciated in fuller measure the softening and ennobling influences of music and song and other embellishments and graces of life. Nay, another and still higher distinction had the ancient clansmen of Ireland—they loved and reverenced and obeyed the law and its administrators; and they had a law over them, to which they could be amenable without terror and loathing, which they could obey without cursing it in their souls. Consider what a difference is here! For real law, that is justice, makes the only civilization, the only life of a State. If you would know how an Irish chief won glory from Bard and Brehon, and made his memory fragrant in the records of his time, hear how the venerable Four Masters, in announcing the death of a certain O’Donnell, in 1505, describe his character:
‘O’Donnell was the best for either peace or war, and the most distinguished of the Irish in Ireland in his time, for governments, laws, and regulations—for throughout Tyrconnell, during his time, no watching was kept, and men only closed the doors to keep out the wind. He was the best patron of ecclesiastics and of men of learning, and a man who gave immense alms in honour of the God of the Universe.’
Of another chieftain, the annalists record that ‘he was a rigid enforcer of the established laws and ordinances—a man during whose time the seasons had been favourable, so that both sea and land had been fruitful and productive during his government, and who had established every person in his country in his rightful inheritance, so that none of them might hear enmity to another.’
Whereupon a certain reviewer of these annalists remarks—
‘I call that state of society Civilization. But how is the law (or what passes for law) regarded in Ireland now? Who has more sympathy and love from the Irish people in this great nineteenth century—the man who ‘enforces the laws’ or the man who breaks and teaches others to break and evade them? In this nineteenth century when neither fertile land nor teeming sea is fruitful to us—when the harp and song are silent in our halls,–when, instead of Brehons, we have juries, and (God be between us and harm!) a Lord Chancellor and Commissioners of Incumbered Estates,–when the wind whistles through our roofless monasteries, and a man will tell his own foster-brother to go to the poor-house—this I call social disorganisation, retrogression and relapse into barbarism.’
Doubtless there were cruel evils done under the sun in those days too; there were forays and ravages, but there was no universal clearance system—what we call extermination; there was bloodshed enough, but there was no national famine in the very lap of plenty. There were many crimes of violence, for men had red blood boiling in their veins, and it must be confessed there was no ‘popular literature,’ but also there were no bubble-companies, there was no Exeter Hall, there was no cant.
Bear with me, if I dwell too long on this one instance of decadence in the modern world. I dwell on it, not because that island was my own native country, but simply because it is the most conspicuous example of the utter ruin, desolation and degradation which sometimes in this century of ‘progress’ comes upon a nation of men, and comes upon them by virtue of that very ‘progress’ wherein they are told to boast and glory.
On the whole, our enlightened age is fast darkening for England into an ominous twilight—has already gathered over Ireland into blackest, starless midnight, in which it needs strong faith even to hope for a dawn. The reason is, that the true life of nations, the only well-being of human society, consists not in commerce, not in gas, steam or electricity, but in simple justice. Where justice is denied, or is dead, benevolence is impertinence. That life having died out, all the apparatus of pampered modern existence is but an additional evil; yes, if the thought that is in man, that has been accepted and endorsed and has become current, be indeed a false and foolish thought, then the fewer vehicles of thought the better. The printing press will vomit forth only rubbish, putrid itself, and infecting with putrescence whatsoever it touches—the telegraphic wires will whisper more falsehood than truth, and make electricity itself an instrument of wrong. On railway-cars many indeed will run to and fro, but knowledge will not be increased. And in all the sumptuous garniture that has been contrived to clothe human life withal, as it marches in its stately ‘progress,’ there will be but a dead corpse making progress to perdition.
If the age be decadent in any country at any time—if the spirit of the age be a base and corrupt spirit, then all the winged, many-voiced, hundred-handed messengers and servants of the age will do evil and not good. They will simply execute the behests of that age; for man cannot be exalted by his own servants, whom he has created with his own hands. We cannot climb above ourselves. Let any of you try if he can run away from himself, if he can see his own eyes, if he can dance with his own head in his teeth.
What if human progress, after all, be like the progress of the material globe in a cycloid?—if the motion of every individual human society be a real wheel of fortune, whereupon it climbs, culminates and falls?—if there be indeed an intellectual and moral summer for each region of the globe, warming men just then and there, with the vital fire of national spirit and individual intelligence, and giving social life its highest and grandest development,–but followed, as surely and inevitably by the withering winter? All the analogies of nature preach this to us aloud. History, so far as the glimmering lamp of history throws back a ray, tells the same tale. What a glowing tide of life once poured itself through the valleys of Syria! of Numidia! Siberia itself bears some dim and almost obliterated monuments and testimonies of having once been the home of what we call ‘civilized’ nations. From careful study of the language, arts, traditions and monuments of the red men of North and South America, M. Martius was forced to the conclusion that here was a race which had degenerated from a condition of high culture into a generation of wild hunters. Thus if this Cyclical law be the true law, there is continual compensation to maintain equilibrium, one nation always sinking in exact proportion as another climbs. If our age credit itself with the life and action of Europe, let it debit itself with the death and burial of Asia.
Even of the natural sciences and of the useful and ornamental arts, which we are accustomed to regard as almost exclusively modern, it is hard to ascertain how much is really new. Copernicus discovers a solar system which Pythagoras had known, though he did not pretend to discover it, two thousand years before. An imperfect account of the same Pythagoras’s geological doctrines is attempted to be conveyed by Ovid, a mere love-poet of the enlightened and very progressive Augustan age, (which indeed had progressed so far as to have lost sight of ancient science.) But even from the flimsy and fanciful description of the Augustan love-poet, ignorant of the meaning of the metamorphoses he sung, we can perceive that the geology of Pythagoras was substantially and almost precisely the geology of Sir Charles Lyell. There are lost arts and eclipsed philosophies, as well as dimmed virtues and corrupted institutions. ‘Man,’ says a Chinese sage, ‘is a child born at midnight; when it is morning he thinks there never was a yesterday.’
In one point, it may well be admitted, we are far beyond all former ages—in talk of the balmy, sentimental sort. Peace and good will to men never were so talked about before; there is universal benevolence forever on the modern tongue, and even trying here and there to reduce itself to action, but always in the wrong direction, towards the wrong men. Towards criminals, for example, and all manners of pests of society. Instead of severe, sanguinary, sharp and decisive punishments, which would repress crime, modern philanthropy so pampers and tenderly entreats the criminal as to put a premium on villainy. If there be not justice, there is mercy. If there be not a fair trial, there is at least a well-whitewashed and well-ventilated cell. Then the benevolence that pours itself out on all objects of sympathy, provided that be very far off, would be most touching to behold, but that the recipients of so much compassion usually do not happen to want it. It has been well said, ‘when the generous affections have become well nigh paralytic, we have the reign of sentimentality. The greatness, the profitableness, at any rate the extremely ornamental nature of high feeling, and the luxury of doing good; charity, love, self-forgetfulness, devotedness, and all manner of god-like magnanimity, are everywhere insisted on and pressingly inculcated in prose and verse.’ But for all real nobility of soul this cant of sentimentality is a mere succedaneum and substitute.
When we read of ancient times, in those ages by us impudently called ‘dark,’ does it not continually strike us, as the proper difference of those times compared with the present, that men and women then acted more upon genuine feeling!—that instead of puny sentimentalism, they had vehement passion, wherein words meant things and the fiery thought forever strove to grow into a strenuous act.
Consider the remarkable contrast of two young ladies, each sitting at her work. One of them sits in London in the nineteenth century after Christ; the other is a Carthaginian girl in the third century before that era—the one is amiably working little handkerchiefs and waistcoats for African picaninnies on the banks of the Joliba, and listening to benevolent discourse about all men being brethren and about peace on earth and good will to men; and she really thinks she is doing some good, and blesses God that she lives in so kind an age. The other, what is her morning’s work? The Romans are beleaguering her native city, her haughty city, Carthage of the ships; and the defenders are in want of bow-strings, and she, with proud alacrity and eyes flashing fire, and fingers trembling with heroic passion, is shearing off her long raven hair and twisting and knotting it into bow-strings; aye, and exalting in her beautiful, benighted, Pagan soul, to think that silken tress will send the winged death hissing to some Roman heart.
A shocking picture is it not? Doubtless, by all rules of balmy modern sentimentalism, one is bound, of these two maidens, greatly to commend and prefer the kind sempstress of tuckers. I praise her, too; but give me the Carthaginian war goddess! Peace, indeed, is sometimes beautiful, but is often ignoble, corrupt, ignominious. Not peace, but war, has called forth the grandest, finest, tenderest, most generous qualities of manhood and of womanhood. What made America, and breathed into her nostril a fiery life? War. And oh! Heavens! What unmade Ireland, and brought her into the pit of debasement where she lies now? Peace, patience and perseverance, under insolent oppression, and in the very jaws of national death. Yet one of the warmest aspirations of our benevolent perfectibility-hunters is the cessation of war. Luckily it is impossible; but, if possible, it would be very undesirable; because war is as needful to agitate and purify the moral atmosphere as thunder storms to stir and cleanse the material air we breathe. Let the thunders and the lightnings be reformed away, and soon neither man nor beast could live—save alligators or some unclean monsters. Let wars be miraculously abolished, and ‘the canker of long peace’ will kill the soul of nations and of men; in the foul air of that corruption will grow monsters enough, and the progress of the species will be backward indeed.
For a long while past, until within the last few months, the ear of mankind was compelled to listen to much about the vast strides towards universal peace and brotherhood that were to have been made by means of what we may call Crystal Palacedom; by means of grand and majestic temples, wherein, with solemn fasti and festivals, and with a gorgeous ritual was to be worshipped the fiend Mammon or Mercury, or Commerce, (which you please) for the deeper significance of that great original Crystal Palace in London, was believed to lie in this—that it was essentially a ‘peace-movement.’ Men said—Go to, let us build a temple for all nations, where all can flock to worship gold, the only power they will ever unanimously worship. One touch of Commerce, said they, makes the whole world kin. Over the countries of this world-shop, all will shake hands and be friends for ever; and then who shall stay our progress? By omnipotent capital and co-operation, shall we not then move mountains, and march upward and onward till we scale the very heavens and become as gods? Alas! these combinations of men to vanquish nature and resist their inexorable destiny, have not sped well hitherto. Anacharsis Cloots, orator of the human race, had his grand palaver of all nations, (Oratory, not Commerce being then and there accounted the omnipotent,) all mankind swore everlasting brotherhood on the altar of Liberty, and almost immediately after began the most extensive mutual cutting of mankind’s throats that had ever yet been seen on earth. Nay, the very first Crystal Palace, was the Tower of Babel. The Tower Shinar, was essentially a ‘Peace movement,’ an attempt to establish a centre of unity amongst the tribes of earth—a Tower of All Nations—‘that they might be one, and their name one lest they should be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ It did not answer; it turned out otherwise than had been expected; from that same tower, as from a centre of repulsion, men radiated over the world, mere foreigners and foes, and the last of that business was worse than the first.
So it has fared with the great modern glass tower of Shinar too. Hardly had it been duly consecrated, and the brotherhood of the nations fairly inaugurated—England, with her offering of cotton, flinging herself into the arms of Russia with her votive Malachite—France, forgetting the Rhine frontiers, and coming with effusion to offer her jewellery and ribbons on the same altar with the draperies of Prussia and the furnitures of Austria—when behold! the sworn brethren, almost from the very temple of their fraternal rite, rush asunder, turn on one another with scowling eyes, and eagerly prepare to hurl all Europe into such a bloody chaos as Europe or the earth never witnessed yet.
So are men taught, that they must be content to move in a circle; and that the centrifugal force must never, never conquer the centripetal, lest we start off in a right line and astonish infinite space. Our own nature, our own passions, both good and evil, are the crystalline sphere that prisons us in a ring of adamant, and keeps us wheeling in our inevitable orbit. It is natural, nay, forever necessary, that we aim at somewhat higher, and reach out our hands to grasp grander possibilities. Yet the fate of the earth-born, heaven-sealing Titans will still be ours, and will send the boldest of us reeling from the threshold of the sky; the laughter-loving Aphrodite will laugh forever, as she draws us downward, downward, by an irresistible chain of roses.
Are we going back then? Going down? Grows the world worse instead of better? More wretched, instead of more happy? God forbid! Some nations indeed have gone back and gone down; and human nature and life have therein fallen into blank etiolation, darkness and decay; but just in that exact proportion, other parts of the world have been emerging into the sun-light; and the life of man has quickened into intense vitality, and sprung into glory and power. As twilight shadows have been creeping over Western Europe, the rosy fingers of Morning have been opening the gates of dawn upon America. Perhaps the truth is that while we know Man, the individual, may and can advance, by high culture, by self-denial and heroic energy, and faith, to the loftiest heights of human intellect and virtue; that while nations can grow great, free and happy, each in its day, Man the family or genus, never stirs a step, either backward or forward. Quite as mistaken seems to me the self-abasement of our fathers in the presence of their ancestors’ shades, as our glorification of ourselves above them, and the insults we pour on their ashes. Quite as mistaken, but perhaps a more natural and less mischievous mistake, inasmuch as humanity is more compatible with any real improvement, either of individuals or nations, than presumption. I shake the head as much at the dismal philosophy of the elder Pliny, and Montaigne or at Horace with his
Aetas parentum, pejor avis tulit
Nos nequiores, mox daturos,
As at the flattering pictures elaborated by Macaulay, or the glowing anticipations of the Editors of all the Penny Magazines.
And, gentlemen, it is useless to object that this theory of non-progress or progress in a circle, or progress here, compensated by retrogression there, would, if generally received, take away all motive for patriotic effort or generous self-sacrifice in a good cause. Would it so? When Horatius Cocles stood on the bridge, to stay the march of the Etrusean army into Rome, was he bound to consider, or did he in fact consider, whether what he was doing would benefit the human race? He knew he was holding back an enemy from the city that contained the white walls of his home, the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods—and was not that enough for him? Would the Swiss warriors, think you, have kept back from meeting Austria at Sempach or Morgarten, unless they had believed they were not only protecting their valleys from an insolent foe, but were making a step or a stride towards the perfectibility of mankind!—Nay, even so late as the period of your Revolution—although in the writings of some leading men there had begun to appear some tinge of the modern progressive philosophy, taken from the French Encyclopaedists, yet I am strong in the belief that the brave colonists who drew their swords against the preamble of an English act of Parliament, in those days thought little of fixing a bow of hope in the western sky, or kindling a starry Pharos, to guide the wandering nations of men upon their dark voyage to some grander future. No, if they were doing all these fine things, they were unconscious of it; they simply would not, without due representation, pay that accursed three-pence per pound upon their tea—not three-pence, not the three hundredth part of three-pence—imposed insolently, contemptuously, and with pretence of a right to impose it. Now, such achievements as these, performed in the simple might of manhood, unconscious of any world-wide mission (for men had no missions in those days)—these were the agencies whereby the race of man would be really elevated, if in this world it were capable of elevation.
Besides, as to the argument, that these theories if perceived, would take away one main motive for exertion in a good cause, it is further to be said, that the good brave men of the earth, act their bravery and their goodness not for the sake of posterity or of the other hemisphere, but simply because they are good and brave; and it is a necessity of their being to act accordingly—to act in the living present, letting unborn posterity take care of itself, and the dead bury their dead. Men must work. All things are full of labour. Man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
These good and heroic men, and the work they do, can by no means be dispensed with. By virtue of these men and their work, the world is a world and not a waste and desolate wilderness. Take these away, and human society and the race of men would soon rot off the face of the earth. These, in the strictest and most literal sense, are the salt of the earth; and the Creator of the world will not permit the salt to lose its savour. True heroism, then, true benevolence, courage, self-abnegation, individual worth, lofty culture, ever-labouring thaumaturzia. Thought, are, if not sublime and godlike, at least preservative and antiseptic. They prevent our life from sinking into a foul, obscure slime, peopled with monsters;— they are the centrifugal force which prevents the world from rushing blindly into the hungry fire, and being burned there—not before its time—for without its mighty and glorious souls, it would not be worth its fuel.
Moreover, if the whole genus homo cannot be elevated and improved in one mass, yet a nation can. To be sure such improvement and elevation are certain to be compensated by the contemporaneous decay and degradation of some other race, and to be requited, moreover, by ages of evil against years of good. What then? Shall you, indeed, refuse to bask in the warmth of your summer, and to kindle your hearts and souls at the beams of the sun when it has climbed your solstice, because some other nation is falling into the valley of shadow, and sinking into the winter of its discontent, or because you foresee that the glorious fruitage of your teeming summer will assuredly wither when the autumn comes, and be buried at last in winter’s grave of snows?
Americans! young Americans! it is your day now; your turn has come. For you the sun shines, for you the fruit ripens and reddens. Will you deem it presumption in me, a foreigner, who have come to shelter myself in your green shades, if I say to you, that on you the onus also lies. To you, much has been given, of you, also, much will be required. Of all the people and tribes, and tongues, and nations now extant, there are two—one in the East, Russia; one in the West, America—on whom has devolved, as I believe, the task of carrying on the main concerns of the world, in these our days—the task of taking order, not for the regeneration, but for the conservation of the human race.
Placed, physically, in two hemispheres—placed morally at two opposite poles of thought, in two separate centres of action, those two nations appear to me, (now that Asia is dead, and Africa unborn, and Western Europe in the agonies, almost with the death-rattle in her throat)—those two young nations seem to be set each in its place, each with its own work to do, each its own problem to solve, at its own proper peril. The main difference is, that Americans will themselves work out their experiment; the Russians will have theirs worked out upon them, and for them. These two nations are now, in the only proper sense of that term, the civilized and civilizing nations of the globe. Each will, probably, in its own direction, go far, and labour much; and in the sweat of their brows, and in heavy toil of hand and of brain, they will labour to fulfil their task; yet, when all is done, they may consider it success if they leave mankind where they found it, no better and no worse. Their charge is like the mission of the Roman Dictator, so far as the human race is concerned, to provide ne quid detrimenti capiat. It will need all the conservative energies and antiseptic virtue of all their great men, to stay mortification and to give a new lease of life to the old earth.
On America especially, and in a more signal matter, as I fondly believe, devolves this glorious business. You cannot, young Americans! you cannot regenerate your kind; but you can make your own lives sublime; you can make the history of your own land a panorama of great ends, a Pantheon of demigods. And is this nothing? Do you not find this an aim high enough, good and great enough, to nerve your souls to all manly actions? That block of cold, grey granite which presses the dust of Jefferson on Monticello, speaks to you here and now—He that hath ears to hear, let him hear! The genius of your country beckons to you from the summit of the Cordilleras—woos you in the balmy airs of the Pacific—sighs to you out of the palm-groves of the Antilles, as chained Andromeda sighed for her deliverer. Aye, and Opportunity, too, a winged horse of Perseus, saddled and bitted, comes bounding by;—miss it, and you may sit long helpless by the wayside; but seize the steed, mount, and ride victoriously, and the sounding corridors of Time shall long echo the clang of your trampling hoofs, and the pages of history shall gleam and glow forever with the pomp of your pre-destined march.
1 ‘The age of our fathers, which was worse than that of our ancestors, produced us, who are shortly to raise a progeny even more vicious than ourselves.’ – The Odes.