Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/June 1886/The Millennium of Madness
By FELIX L. OSWALD.
IN a recent number of "The Popular Science Monthly" Professor McElroy's brilliant essay on the cause and cure of feudalism was prefaced by a question which has, indeed, been but rarely investigated from a scientific point of view. The debasement of the noblest Caucasian nations during the thousand years following the day when the power of Rome collapsed under the blows of the freedom-loving Goths seems certainly the most striking anomaly in the history of mankind. Yet would it have been well for those nations if their debasement had been confined to that loss of personal liberty which in pagan Greece and Rome followed the ascendency of a military despotism. But how shall we account for the fact that in mediæval Europe that loss was accompanied by a general neglect of science and education, a general decadence of industry, and a wide-spread epidemic of monstrous superstitions? Thus supplemented, Professor McElroy's question expresses the great enigma of the middle ages—an enigma which can not be wholly explained by the "adaptation of the horse to warfare and the development of defensive armor."
The doctrine of evolution recognizes the fact that the development of social and physical organisms is not an unbroken march of progress. Advancement alternates with pauses, as day with night, or life with death; the phenomena of progressive life roll through the cycles of germination, maturity, and decay. In the household of Nature every grave is a cradle; the mold of every fallen tree furthers the growth of new trees. Grecian colonies flourished on the ruins of Troy, Persian provinces on the ruins of Babylon, Macedonian kingdoms on the grave of the Persian Empire; Roman legionaries inherited the wealth and the culture of conquered Greece. The conquerors of Rome were the noblest, stoutest, and manliest races of the Caucasian world; freemen, in love with health and Nature, yet withal with poetry, glory, honor, justice, and honest thrift. They planted their banners in the garden-lands of the West; and their empires, gilt by the morning light of a new era, were founded under auspices far happier than those of the Arabian satrapies in the worn-out soil of the East. In less than five hundred years after the establishment of their political independence, the civilization of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs, had developed its fairest flowers—industry, commercial activity, art, liberal education, flourishing schools of philosophy, poetry, and natural science. Five hundred years after the triumph of the Gothic conquerors we find their empires groaning under a concentration of all scourges. The day-star of civilization had set in utter night; the proud nations of the West had sunk in poverty, bigotry, general ignorance, cruel abasement of the lower classes, squalid misery of domestic life, systematic suppression of political, personal, and intellectual liberty.
How shall we explain that dreadful aphanasia, that thousand years' eclipse of reason and freedom that followed like an unnatural night upon the brightest sunrise in the history of the human race? A year after the death of the prophetess Sospitra, says the pagan historian Eunapius, her son was one day standing before the temple of Serapis, when the prophetic spirit of his mother fell upon him: "Woe be our children!" he exclaimed, when he awakened from his trance; "I see a cloud approaching: a great darkness will fall upon the human race."
And, verily, that cloud did not come from Olympus or Mount Sinai. The law revealed in the "conservation of forces" holds good in many phenomena of the moral world. Every apparent annihilation of energy is only a metamorphosis of its manifestations, and we can often discover the principle of that metamorphosis by ascertaining the active concomitants of its results. Just as mechanical force can be converted into heat, or heat into electricity, the energy diverted from rural pursuits may assert itself in political, industrial, or scientific activity. The pent-up vigor of the middle ages had no such outlets. War, now a curse, was then a welcome, but limited, alternative of stagnation; the lethargy of the dreary intervals was for millions a night without even the starlight of hope. Yet that strange torpor was accompanied by the feverish activity of a novel pursuit—a relentless war against the instincts of Nature. The children of freedom-loving ancestors were imprisoned in convents, where bigotry and superstition conspired for the suppression of every natural feeling. Hordes of self-torturing fanatics roamed the land, appalling the wretched peasants by their direful predictions of approaching calamities. Fourteen different orders of monastic devotees vied in the systematic mortification of their natural desires, the depletion of their physical and intellectual vigor, the enforcement of health-destroying penances, and reason-insulting dogmas and ceremonies. While science withered to its very roots in the famished love of knowledge, the mania of antiphysics rioted in the production of thousands upon thousands of voluminous manuscripts devoted to the propaganda of self-torture and self-abasement, and the glorification of Nature-insulting fanatics. Art worshiped at the same shrine. Painters exhausted their fancy in the representation of physical wrecks and ghastly tortures. Winckelmann estimates that hardly one in ten thousand of the plastic masterpieces of a Nature-loving antiquity escaped the fury of the monastic iconoclasts. The war against Nature was carried into every branch of moral and mental education.
Such doctrines did not fail to bear their fruit. Ignorance gloried in her indifference to the vanities of worldly science. Cruelty moralized on the duty of stifling the appeals to the law of Nature. Despotism enforced the precepts of self-abasement and passive obedience. Indolence welcomed the dogma of renunciation. The suppressed love of natural science begat a chimera-brood of pseudo-sciences astrology, necromancy, alchemy, demonology, exorcism, thaumaturgism. Monkery and the neglect of rational agriculture conspired to turn garden-lands into deserts and freemen into serfs. The suppression of free inquiry begat hypocrisy and a mental sloth never equaled in the darkest ages of pagan barbarism. Freedom, driven from the open land, took refuge behind walled castles, and soon learned to make might the measure of right. Feudalism was the result, rather than the cause, of social degeneration. All the better instincts of the human mind were either suppressed or perverted by the influence of a principle equally foreign to the philosophy of the pagan moralists and the ethics of the Semitic religions—so foreign, that the attempt to amalgamate its doctrines with the manful monotheism of the Hebrew lawgiver is the chief cause of those mysterious inconsistencies which have so often frustrated the zeal of its propagandists: a benevolent Allfather, who yet frightfully and eternally tortures a vast plurality of his children; a God-created earth, that must be renounced to avoid the wrath of its creator; a godlike body, fit only to be despised and mortified.
Yet that mystery was solved by the same key that unlocked the etymological riddles of the Aryan languages—the study of the Hindoo scriptures. As the Vedas elucidated the origin and development of the Indo-Germanic tongues, the sacred writings of Buddhism revealed the root-dogma that bore its logical fruit in self-torture and renunciation: the doctrine of the worthlessness of earthly existence, and the necessity of salvation by the suppression of all earthly desires. According to the gospel of Buddha Sakyamuni, not the abuse of life, but life itself, is an evil. All earthly blessings are curses in disguise. The beauty of earth is the snare of the Maya, a mirage luring its dupes from error to error toward grief and repentance. Only he who has lifted the veil of that delusion has entered the path of salvation. Total abstinence from the joys of life is the only cure for its ills, and the highest goal of the future is Nirvana—peace and absolute deliverance from the vexations of earthly desires.
In their progress from the banks of the Ganges to the shores of the Atlantic those doctrines underwent various mystifying modifications, and under the humanizing influence of pagan ethics Asceticism assumed a meaning akin to that of Stoicism—frugality, self-control, virtuous preference of manly to effeminate pleasures. But, in the language of the East-Grecian anchorites, Askesis meant simply endeavor, and that endeavor was an effort to tear the human mind from the roots of its earthly sympathies. The doctrines which his successors veiled in mystery, the hermit of Nepaul proclaimed with stern directness: absolute abstinence from all pleasures whatever, complete suppression of all earthly instincts and desires. He who would hope to reach the goal of salvation must court sorrow and affliction as others woo the smiles of Fortune. He must avoid everything that could reconcile him to life and lure him back to the delusions of earthly pursuits. He must despise worldly knowledge, the great object of life being the suppression of our natural inclinations, and, if possible, of our natural thoughts and feelings. He must have no fixed habitation, and must avoid sleeping twice under the same tree, lest an undue affection for any earthly object should hinder his spirit in the progress of its emancipation from the vanities of life!
The question remains, How could delusions of that sort ever assume an epidemic form? Upon which germ in the instincts of the human mind could the gospel of renunciation ingraft its monstrous dogmas? There is a significant tradition that Buddha Sakyamuni entered upon his mission only after exhausting the pleasures of wealth and luxury. It is an equally suggestive circumstance that the chief success of that mission was attained among the most effete nations of the overpopulated East—the Chinese, the Siamese, and the soul-sick pariahs of the Indian Peninsula. The doctrines of Buddhism recommended themselves to the pessimistic bias of a worn-out generation; moribund Impotence pleased herself in the idea that her lot is preferable to that of the survivors. Anti-naturalism is an appeal to the life-weary instincts of decrepitude.
In the evening twilight of life Nature relaxes the bonds of vitality, in order to reconcile her children to the prospects of the coming change. The weariness of a toilsome day sweetens the rest even of a dreamless sleep. To the germ of that instinct the doctrine of renunciation applies its fomenting stimulus. Quietism is a precocious senility. It is the premature development of an instinct that should assert itself only as a concomitant of superannuation. Hence the antagonism its dogmas encountered in the homes of health, hence the opposition of pagan philosophy and the latent protestantism of all manly nations. Hence, its concomitance with disease and decrepitude, its popularity in the bond-house of Despotism, its revival in the world-renouncing zeal of caged criminals, worn-out sensualists, and superannuated coquettes. Hence, also, the unparalleled progress of mankind since the time when the sluice-gates of Asceticism were finally forced by the explosion of the Protestant Revolt. Like the floods of a dam-breaking river, the energies of the Caucasian race are rushing down the long-forsaken channels of their former activity, and in all essential respects the triumphs of our boasted civilization have but followed the resumption of a work suspended when the workmen of antiquity were interrupted by the shadow of the great eclipse—the millennium of ascetic insanity.
The true significance of the anti-cosmic principle was first revealed by the analytical studies of Arthur Schopenhauer, whose conclusions were strikingly confirmed by the historical researches of Wassiljew, Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire, Beal, Rhys Davis, Hue, Burnouf, Kern, Lassen, and Oldenberg. Like the doctrine of evolution, his theory met at first with obstinate opposition, but, like the doctrine of evolution, it will prevail by solving many riddles.