The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8
The Duties of the Age
The Duties of the Age.
What matters it at the end of this short, sad life, to be cited as an example of external happiness? What really matters is, to have thought much, to have loved much, to have cast a firm glance on everything, to be able to say in our last hour, "I have lived much." I prefer a yogui, I prefer an Indian mouni, I prefer Simon Stylites, eaten by worms upon his pillar, to these pale existences on whom no ray of ideal light has ever shone, whose days from their first to their last moment have been quietly turned over like the leaves of a ledger. If philosophy, if science, if art, if literature, were only an agreeable pastime, a pleasure for the idle, an ornament of luxury, an amusement for amateurs, in a word, "the least vain of vanities," there would be days when the scholar would have to say with the poet: "Honte à qui peut chanter, pendant que Rome brûle." But, if the labour of thought be the most serious thing that exists, if the destinies of humanity, and the perfection of the individual be linked to it, this labour has, like the things of religion, a value for every day and for every instant. To give to study and intellectual culture only leisure moments, is to insult the human mind, is to suppose that there is something more important than the discovery of truth. Now, if it were so, if philosophy were only an interest of secondary order, ought the man who has devoted his life to Perfection, who wishes to be able to say in his last moments: "I have accomplished my aim:"—ought he to spend an hour on philosophy when he knows that loftier duties call for him? What matters it, after all, whether the day after to-morrow be sure or uncertain? Of what importance is it whether the future does or does not belong to us? Is truth less beautiful, is God less great? Though the world should perish we must still philosophise; and I trust that if ever our planet be the victim of a cataclysm, in that terrible moment there will be found men, who in the midst of ruin and chaos, will retain disinterested and scientific thought, and who, forgetting their approaching death, will discuss the phenomenon, and draw from it conclusions on the general system of the universe.
The whole secret of the intellectual condition of the times in which we live lies in this fatal truth: Intellectual labour has been degraded to the rank of a pleasure, and now that a day of serious struggles has come, pleasures are found insignificant and insipid. The fault lies then not in the events, which have contributed rather to excite thought; it lies wholly in the general decay induced by this love of ease, this shameful worship of pleasure, of which the Communistic follies are only the last consequence.
Science, art and philosophy are of value only so far as they are religious things; that is to say, only so far as they furnish to man the spiritual bread which religion formerly gave him, and which it can give him no longer. "One thing alone is needful." We must admit this precept of the great Master of morals as the page 267 whole principle of a noble life, as the expressive rule, although dangerous in its brevity, of the duties of human life.
The first steps of him who wishes to give himself to Wisdom (as the ancients said) is to divide his life into two parts,—the one commonplace, and containing nothing sacred, consisting of wants and pleasures of an inferior order; the other, which may be called ideal, celestial, divine, disinterested, absorbed in the worship of the pure forms of truth, beauty, and moral goodness, or (to take the widest expression and the one most consecrated by the reverence of the past) of God Himself, touched, perceived, and felt under His thousand forms by knowledge of all that is true and love of all that is beautiful. The saint is he who consecrates his life to this great ideal, and declares all else useless.
Yes, there is in the pure worship of the human faculties and the divine objects to which they relate, a religion as truly sweet, as truly rich in delights, as the most venerable faiths.
I have experienced in my childhood and in my early youth the sweetest joys of the believer; and, I say it from the depth of my heart, these joys were as nothing compared with those which I have felt in the pure contemplation of Beauty and the passionate research for Truth.
I desire for all my brothers who remain in orthodoxy a peace comparable to that which I have felt since my struggle ended, and the abated tempest left me in the midst of this great peaceful ocean, this sea without billows and without shore, where there is no star but reason, no compass but the heart.
Christian asceticism was right in declaring that religious things alone have ideal value, and that all else is vanity. But in proclaiming this great simplification of life, it represented in a maimer so contracted this one thing needful, that its principle became in time an intolerable chain for the human mind. Not only did the fathers of the spiritual life totally neglect the true and. beautiful (philosophy, science, and poetry were in their eyes only vanities), but in attaching themselves exclusively to moral good, they conceived it under its meanest form.
Goodness was to them the execution of the will of a superior being, a kind of subjection humiliating to human dignity. Now the pursuit of moral good is not an obedience to external laws any more than the search after the beautiful in a work of art is the observance of certain rules.
Thus human nature is mutilated in its highest part. Among intellectual things, which are all equally holy, a distinction into sacred and profane was made. The profane, thanks to the instincts of nature which were stronger than the principles of an artificial asceticism, was not entirely banished; they tolerated it, though as a vanity. But, had they been consistent they had banished it without pity, it was a weakness which perfection renounced. Fatal distinction! which has poisoned the life of so many free and beautiful souls, born to taste the ideal in all its page 268 infinitude, whose lives passed away in sadness under this gloomy limitation. What struggles has it cost me! The first philosophical victory of my youth was to proclaim from the depth of my conscience: "All that is intellectual is sacred."
The inferiority of modern society arises from the fact that intellectual culture is not understood as a religious thing, that poetry, science, and literature are looked upon as arts of luxury, to be enjoyed only by privileged classes. Greek art was produced for the nation, the art of the seventeenth century was produced for the king, and so in a measure, for the nation; the art of our days is seldom produced but on the order of an individual.
Hence comes it that a novel-writer can make a brilliant fortune, and gain what is called a position in the world, whilst a grave scholar, though his works be as fine as those of Bopp, or M. Eugène Burnouf, can in no wise live on the proceeds of his writings.
Poetry, philosophy, and literature were not in the great days of antiquity exclusive professions, as is the case in our modern society. Men could be philosophers or poets, as they could be honest men,—in every condition of life. No material interests, no official institutions were needed to excite zeal for research, or poetical creation. Spontaneous curiosity, the instinct of the beautiful, was sufficient. Ammonius Saccas, the founder of one of the most abstract schools of ancient philosophy, was a street porter. Imagine a porter in our days creating an order of speculation analogous to the philosophy of Schelling or Hegel! When I think of that noble people of Athens, where all felt and lived on the life of the nation; of that people who applauded Sophocles, and criticised Isocrates, of that city where the women cried, "That is Demosthenes," where a costermonger recognised the foreign diction of Theophrastus, where all had been educated at the same gymnasium and in the same poetry, where all knew and understood Homer; I cannot help feeling some anger against modern society with its sharp division into cultivated and uncultivated men. There all had a place in the light of intelligence, all had part in the same memories, all felt a glory in the same trophies, all had contemplated the same Minerva, the same Zeus.
Intellectual labour has its full value only when it springs spontaneously from that want of human nature which is expressed in the phrase, "Man shall not live by bread alone." The great scientific and religious sentiment will reappear only when we return to a conception of life as true, as little artificial, as that of the traveller alone in the forests of America, or of the Brahmin finding that he has lived as was his duty, and preparing himself for the Great Departure—to die upon the heights of the Himalayas.
Who has not experienced these moments of inward solitude, in which the soul, pressing ever deeper in its search for its true self, pierces veil after veil, and comes at last to the silent region where all conventionality is at an end, and it stands in presence of itself page 269 without fiction or artifice between. Rare and fleeting are these moments, commonly we live in presence of a third personality which hinders the soul from this awful meeting with itself. Freedom of life can be won only by tearing away this veil, and flying directly into the deepest recesses of our nature, there to listen to the unselfish instincts that bid us to know, to worship, and to love.
Would to God that all living and pure souls were persuaded that the question of the future of humanity is entirely a question of science, and that philosophy, that is to say, rational investigation, is alone competent to solve it.
The really thorough revolution, that which will give form to the future, will not be a political revolution, but a religious and moral one. Politics have furnished all that they could furnish; henceforth they are a barren and exhausted field, a struggle of passions and intrigues, uninteresting to humanity, interesting only to those who mingle in them.
There are periods when all becomes political; as, for instance, at the juncture of the middle and modern ages. In the time of Philippe le Bel, of Louis XI., learned men and thinkers were of little importance, and had real value only so far as they aided politics. Politics then led the world; and men of genius, who aspired to do more than to charm their contemporaries, were obliged to become statesmen, in order to exercise their legitimate share of influence upon the times.
It was no blameable ambition which led into this whirlpool the most intelligent men of the first half of our century; they served their times in the best way. But the state of things which they represented draws to an end, and influence passes more and more to the men of thought. There are ages when politics hold the first place in the movement of humanity; there are others when they dwindle into a little bustle of intrigue, and the world's interest concentres upon men of letters. For instance, in the eighteenth century, who held in their hands the great affairs of humanity? It was Voltaire, it was Rousseau, it was Montesquieu; it was a great school of thinkers who took possession of their age, moulded it, and created the future.
And did these thinkers seek to occupy themselves with state affairs as the first generation of the nineteenth century did? No; they remained writers, philosophers, moralists, and it was as such that they influenced the world. So, I imagine, those who shall restore great originality to our age, will not be politicians, but thinkers. They will flourish outside the official world, not caring even to oppose it, leaving it to die in its narrow circle.
In the dry pastures of the Isles of Brittany, each sheep of the flock is tied to a stake, and can eat the scanty grass only in the narrow limits which his cord allows him. Such seems to me to be the present condition of politics: they have exhausted the page 270 resources which they possessed for solving the problem of humanity. Morals, philosophy, true religion, have now passed beyond their range, and they wander in a fatal round of weakness.
Let us take as another example the three first centuries of the Christian era. What were the important events of that time? "Where was the future being moulded? What were the names destined for the reverence of future generations? Did Tiberius and Sejanus, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius really occupy the centre of humanity, as people would doubtless then believe? The true centre of the world was in the most despised corner of the East. The great men destined for veneration were believing enthusiasts, entire strangers to the secrets of political life. Five centuries later, none of the illustrious men of this century were named except Peter, Paul, John and Matthew, poor men who assuredly had made little figure in it. Here, then, is an immense development silently prepared during three centuries, outside the political world, growing side by side with official society, persecuted by official society, but which when its day comes conquers that society, or rather remains living and strong when the political world has perished from exhaustion.
If St. Ambrose had remained governor of Liguria, even though he had been promoted, and had become, like his father, prefect of Gaul, he would now be forgotten. He did better in becoming a bishop.
Do you say then that there is no means of serving humanity except by throwing oneself into the combat? I say on the contrary, that he who throws his whole soul into this humiliating labour proves that he is not called to great duties.
What are politics in our day? An agitation without principles and without laws, a combat of rival ambitions, of mines and counter-mines, a vast theatre of cabals, of purely personal struggles. What is necessary for success, for being "practical" as we say now? Lively originality? ardent and vigorous thought? impetuous conviction? These are invincible obstacles to success. You must not think, or must not utter your thought; you must shut yourself up in a system of conventionalism and official falsity. And do you believe that hence can arise what we need—a source of life, a new patriotism, a belief capable of giving fresh inspiration to humanity? As soon could we hope that scepticism will engender faith, and a new religion spring out of the office walls of a minister or the lobbies of a senate. What humanity needs is Morals and a Faith. It is from the depths of human nature that this faith must come, and not from the dry and beaten tracks of the official world.
M. de Chateaubriand, has, I believe, maintained somewhere, that the entry of men of letters into political activity, marks the weakening of the political spirit of a nation. It would be more true to say that it marks the weakening of the philosophical page 271 spirit, and proves that we no longer understand the value and dignity of intellect; that power has passed from thought and knowledge to intrigue and meddling. It is thus in our own times.
But the ever-rising tide of social questions will compel the political world to confess its weakness. Then shall we understand that the great revolution will come, not from men of action, but from men of thought and feeling; and all elevated minds, abandoning the earth to disquiet men, and regarding forms of government and the names and actions of governors as things indifferent, will take refuge in the heights of human nature, and, burning with enthusiasm for the true and beautiful, will create that new Force, which will overthrow the frail shelter of politics, and will become in its turn the law of humanity. It is no exaggeration, then, to say that philosophy enfolds the future of humanity, and that it alone can teach man his destiny, and the mode of fulfilling it. In politics, said Herder, man is the means; in morals he is the end.
The revolution of the future will be the triumph of morals over politics. Scientifically to organise humanity—such is the last aim of modern science; such is its audacious but legitimate purpose. What is there astonishing in the thought that all the progress, so far made, is perhaps only the first page of the preface of an infinite volume?
All who still adore are united by the object which they adore. The atheist is the frivolous man; the impious, the pagan, are the selfish, those who know nothing of the things of God; withered souls who affect cleverness and laugh at those who believe; souls base and worldly, destined to wither in their egotism and to die of nothingness.
How, oh! disciples of Christ, can you make alliance with men like these? Were it not better to take your stand with us by poor humanity as she lies gloomy and silent by the wayside, and direct her eyes towards the heaven which she has ceased to contemplate? As for us, there our lot is cast; and though superstition and frivolity, henceforth inseparable and allied together, may silence for a time the human conscience, it shall be said in the nineteenth century, the century of cowardice, there were still some men who, notwithstanding vulgar contempt, loved to be called men of another world; men who believed in truth, and pursued it enthusiastically, amidst an age frivolous because it was without faith, and superstitious because it was frivolous.—Renan.