Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/June 1909/Notes on Certain Philosophies of the Day

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search




I. The Rule of the Dead.—M. Le Bon, himself now in the other world, would have it that we are suffering inutterably from a sort of universal mort-main. There is but one real ease of majority rule on earth, that of "those who have gone before." Our masters and rulers are neither the select few among the living, nor the many-headed people, but the great hulking mass of the dead.

With de mortuis nil nisi bonum goes e vivis nihil honi. We praise the dead with our living tongues and let their inanimate hands act for us. Our thoughts, no less than our bodies, are heirlooms from the departed. Like the savage, we hear the dead whispering by the rivers of life and speak their words after them. We bear the burden of their sins; we reap the harvest of their mistakes and their calamities. Paul, the apostle, is not the only one who had the right to say "I die daily," for all men and women are in uninterrupted intercourse with the dead. Even children, just beginning to live, are schooled with dead languages. The old, in their second childhood, are counted already dead. Youth, so full of life, is taught the art of war, adding, by national command, to the number of the dead. Only when dead are the races that were here before us, like the Indian, "good."

Yet many great ones of mankind have longed for emancipation from the rule of the dead. Some adventurous psychologists hold out the hope that some day we shall control the past instead of being absolutely at its beck and call as we now are. The racial and the individual past shall both be ours and memory-guided progress will speed us on to the destined goal. Then, indeed, shall "old men dream dreams" and "young men see visions," and all who see in sleep, like Mahomet, shall see truly. Fear of the unconscious and dread of the past shall be lost in the conscious control of the experience of other days, of times gone by. Then shall they be, as we have fondly imagined them hitherto, the "good old days of yore." No longer shall we be the living tombs of the dead past that will not bury itself; no more phosphorescent merely with the immemorially defunct. We shall then have life, and life more abundantly.

II. Mutability.—Everything changes. As the old Greek philosopher said, flux is the very nature of things. Flora, fauna, races of men, civilizations, institutions, customs and habits, beliefs, ideas and ideals, are in eternal metamorphosis. Schrader tells us this to-day as did Heraclitus long ago. The twentieth-century idea that its culture and its creations will endure may be false, as have been the ideas of Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. The conception of stability is an illusion. All passes and repasses.

Egypt for millenniums has been only a gift of the Nile renewed by its floods. The heroes of Homer are brigands to-day. The Roman Caesar has become a Pope. Spain died when the Indies were born. The cliff-dwellings of Arizona and New Mexico speak of things past and gone. The Negritos, the Bushmen, the Ainu, the Lapps, the Eskimo are being driven to the wall. The fate of the American Indian is partly sealed. The Aztec is a peon; the Peruvian a cargador. The Beothuk and the Tasmanian are already gone. Britain is saved from being an insular Labrador by the Gulf Stream. Bordeaux survives only through its vineyards.

With the ebb and flow of industry and manufactures, villages, towns and cities spring up like mushrooms. Others have disappeared like the melting snow-flakes. The forest vanishes and the sea is encroached upon. Holland reclaims a lost country, America reanimates a desert. Rivers and lakes are dried up and mountains are hewn down.

But, after all, there is an illusion about this flux itself. To remind us of its relativity, the Fellah, direct descendant of the most ancient Egyptian, keeps watch beneath the pyramids. Before him have passed, as the ages came and went, Libyan and man of Punt, Sardinian and Hebrew, Persian and Babylonian, Greek and Roman, Arab and Turk, Frenchman, Englishman and American. And amid all their notable mutations he has remained practically the same. He still waits for the stirring of the waters.

III. Imitation.—Wise men before Solomon said "there is nothing new under the sun." And in all they have thought, said, done or dreamed, the ignorant in all times and among all peoples have corroborated the sages. The great majority of the wise, too, have labored zealously at the same task. To-day, Tarde tells us, imitation is everything.

Art is imitation of nature and nature imitation of God. God imitates himself. Civilization is mimicry. Genial repetition is the sum and substance of great knowledge and deep wisdom. Ignorance is gross imitation. Life and death are both imitative. By imitation childhood learns, youth hopes, manhood forgets, old age despairs. Heredity itself is imitation. Both the individual and the race have acted, "as if its whole vocation were endless imitation."

How hard it is for man to do otherwise than his fellows are doing or have done! To repeat is so much easier than to invent. To borrow than to create. To follow than to lead. To stand with the many than to fall alone. Fortunately for mankind, evolution has set limits to the tide of imitation:

There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

IV. Misoneism.—If we believe Lombroso, misoneism or neophobia, "the hatred of the new," is one of the most deeply ingrained characteristics of man. Progress occurs only when there is a break in the neophobic series. The leaders of mankind are not the many who imitate, but the few who do new things, or think them. And many of these put new wine into old bottles—the makers of new vessels are rarer still. And woe unto those who, with new wine, break old bottles! The blood of such has been the seed of civilization, of the church, of science. Genius, prophet, saint, hero, sage are slain, and the world moves on a little, forgetting even to raise a monument to its great dead. Death baptizes new life: The fall of the few wise inspires a little the ignorant multitude. A martyr means more than a school or a church. On the dead hero springs up the living faith. The doctrine of "the good old days of yore" comes easily to man, who is naturally uncomfortable in the presence of the new. Yet the monotony galls. To take the kingdom of heaven by violence affords relief.

Reforms come from the acts of the few who destroy the old, or through the deeds of the many who slay the innovator. Death or ignominy for centuries has awaited him whose message is: "Behold! I make all things new!"

But not so forever! Slowly, but surety, men are learning wiser and better ways of hating and destroying the new, of preserving and continuing the old. The cessation of blind leadership of the blind means the orderly development of human society. Revolution is giving way to evolution. The old turns naturally and peacefully into the new. War will soon be as unhuman as murder.

An age is near in which we shall no longer imitate the errors of revolutionary epochs. We shall grow into the future by growing out of the past.

In that happy time we shall wonder that their bards could have sung the Celts into vain and pernicious wars; that her philosophers could have desolated Greece by making constitutions for her cities; that soldiers could have brought Rome to vice, luxury and decay; that priests could have led Judæa to reject Jesus for Barabbas; that gold could have brought Spain, once monarch of all the world, to nocuous desuetude. We shall know evolution and act in its spirit.

The philosopher will be content to see the passing of his own physical and mental minority before attempting to lord it over the bodies and souls of his fellows. The statesman will not venture to propound constitutions for states before he has learned to know the laws of his own life. The soldier will not longer yearn to reenact on a grand scale among the nations the war of members and of parts which his own body and mind sustain in youth, but will seek to overcome it in the body politic as in his own organism. Thus will be verified the saying of Scripture: "He that ruleth himself is greater than he that taketh a city." The priest will as gladly serve, as once he ruled, the state. He will rejoice more in being a servant of God than a ruler over men.

V. Struggle.—Man's struggle with the elements has been even more successful than that with his fellows. The hours of final triumph have often been delayed by his own carelessness and dishonesty alone. Beginning with the arrow he won the all-encircling air, with the dug-out, the inhospitable sea, with fire, the inclement sky, with the digging-stick the unyielding earth to his service, or, at least, to his unhurt.

Since his first conquest—as Gallouédec suggests—of the hill-side and of the little mountains, he has become master of the plains, and now morasses and bogs, deserts and huge mountains are fast yielding to his sway. He lords it over unfathomable chasms, dizzy heights and wind-swept ocean. He makes the desert blossom as the rose, and from the very bones of earth coins and fashions things whose beauty is everlasting. He has harnessed the lightning, housed the sunbeam, and both have become the servants of art and of science. Things terrible to his eye and his ear, nay, that shook him to the uttermost depths of his soul, when he first trod the earth, are his familiars now. He has made nature his servant instead of remaining her slave. Gallouédec hardly "exaggerates when he says that from the first man to the. Frenchman or the Englishman of to-day is not a whit less than the distance separating the formless block of marble from the statue produced out of it by the genius of the artist. And the future bids fair to outglorify the past. The conquered earth, once the mere hiding-place of the savage, or his prison, is becoming more and more his home. Nature, who once held him in bondage, after being his servant, turns to colleague and friend. With the passing of war and the lust of human slaughter man is beginning to feel at home in the world and in the universe. And now the empire of the sky is beginning to be his. The future years will see the results of the leisure which progress in man, who alone of all creatures possesses the power to utilize the past and to discern the future, has made possible. Man will live and labor, transform and create in the full sense, of his partnership in all about him, his slaves and servants having become his friends and co-laborers in the evolution of the cosmos. He will outdo Ulysses. He will become a part of all that he has met, and all that he has met will have become a part of him. Struggle will be succeeded by togetherness.