Pillars Of Society
( Originally Published 1912 )
I was glad when they said to me: Let us go up to the house of the Lord. —Hebrew Poem. The law was our schoolmaster.
Thought and emotion are expressions of the soul, but, in themselves, they have no permanent quality. They are as fugitive as snowflakes falling upon water, or as the flame that fringes a sunset cloud. Would they endure? Then they must create for themselves a material form. For this reason came the various arts of sculpture and painting and writing. The literature of Palestine and Greece is a torch perpetually flaming on the headlands of the far past and whose flames still shine across the abyss of centuries. What is it but the enduring form of thoughts and emotions lying back of it? Before books or statues or temples or pictures can be great, the soul that creates them must first be great. The art of a nation is the interpreter of its life.
The leading terms in the sentences quoted at the head of this sketch are significant. The expressions, "law," "schoolmaster" and "house of the Lord" serve to reveal the mental and moral life of the people in whose literature they are found. The term "law"
shows that they had meditated over the prenomena of nature and history. They had penetrated beneath the surface upon which events seem to float, as bubbles on a stream, and had discovered the deeper cur-rent of force and its prevailing direction. The term "schoolmaster" opens the door upon a whole system of education. The young generation was being led forward from ignorance to knowledge. Step by step the journey was made, by way of facts and illustrations, toward universal principles. The expression "house of the Lord" shows that society was, at least, partly composed of persons who had been impressed by religion. They had long since passed beyond that stage of existence in which material comfort is deemed sufficient and all pleasure consists in the gratification of sense. A part of their delight came from moral and spiritual sources. Thus the nations of that far off period were in possession of two great agents of a high civiliation: Education and Religion. These are the pillars with-out which the temples of society would fall into hopeless ruins.
Perhaps man is a product of a long continued evolution. It is said that, in the remote Devonian Age, when a spinal column was formed, man was predicted. This may be true, but the prophecy contained no hint of what a wonderful creature he would ultimately become. Among the ancient ganoids of the sea or pterodactyls of the land and air one might seek in vain for even the slightest intimation of the coming of a race of beings which in their hunger for knowledge would try to lay bare the secret of the universe; would be seen passing in and out of schools and colleges and, on appointed holy days, going into sacred structures to worship the invisible Power and Goodness ; would be seen, at times, hurrying forward in pursuit of moral ideals through all the earthly scenes and then hoping for another career more free from hindrances in some glorious elsewhere. The royal bee is made by the kind of house prepared for it and the kind of food brought to its doors. Not only a more palatial residence, but some royal table must have been spread for that advancing and ascending form of life at whose summit humanity stands causing it, hence-forth, to become more noble, more beautiful, more divine. That from such unpromising beginnings this wonderful being should emerge, some celestial fire must have been mixed with terrestrial clay.
Man's true greatness appears in proportion as he becomes intellectual and moral. The demands of the body are no more exigent than those of the mind and heart. If food and shelter were able to confer greatness, the mastodons that once roamed through the forests and over the prairies of America would' have been great. Nothing external can give nobility to nations or individuals. This comes alone from within. No amount of wealth could make one able to write an Iliad or discover the law of gravitation. An ox standing knee-deep in clover is only an ox. If an abundance of warm or beautiful raiment were enough to complete the aim of existence, nature might have halted when the beaver and bird of paradise were created. It was poetically said that, for beauty, the Judean lilies surpassed the courts of Solomon; but if nature had stopped with those blossoms creation would have lacked much of completeness. Ragged and bare-foot, but uttering immortal truths while he lived and fearlessly dying with his heart full of expectation, Socrates is worth more than a hundred gardens full of lilies and all the splendor of Palestine's royal palaces. In the way of a home, Jesus once lamented that the foxes and birds were much more fortunate than he; but that homeless an lonely One is of far more value to the world than all the animals that ever burrowed in the ground and all the birds that ever flew through the air. Epictetus in the hut of a slave easily eclipses Nero in his regal halls. A philosopher living on a crust in a garret, in his search for truth, far excels the fool feasting in a palace whose sole aim is his own pleasure. Powerful as her armies may have been at Mukden and Port Arthur, Japan's truest greatness and noblest victory were achieved at Portsmouth. The President of the United States, furnishing opportunity for peace between two warring nations, makes himself far more worthy of remembrance than when he is asking for a greater army and recommending that five hundred millions of dollars be expended in warships. The triumphs of force are for a day; the triumphs of reason and love are for the centuries. The perfection of knowledge and justice is the only worthy aim of mankind. For national and social and private ills this is the only remedy.
Herein lies the necessity for the school-house and the church. Their field is the soul. Their aim is to cover earth with a multitude of instructed minds and refined hearts. Food and shelter, wealth and commerce are not ends, but means. They exist that man may have physical life; but education and religion exist that he may have mental and spiritual life. The one contains the promise and potency of an existence measured by earthly years; the other suggests a career that moves grandly forward unharmed by the ruin which time finally brings to every material thing. Asked why he worked so long and so carefully upon the details of a statue, a sculptor answered: "I am working for eternity.
The church and school-house are engaged in a task no less great and impressive.
In this wealth seeking age we should often repeat to ourselves the plain, but often forgotten truth, that by far the greater part and most permanent' form of happiness comes, not from without, but from within. It is much less dependent upon external circumstance than upon an internal condition. The material wealth of some of the civilized lands is overwhelming in its immensity. England and the United States are together worth more than a hundred billions of dollars. But how shall we estimate the spiritual wealth of these nations in the past and present? What learning! What literature! What thoughts ! What rich emotions! What religious sentiments! Rightly gained and rightly used, wealth ministers to happiness. Many of the rich are persons of mental power and moral refinement. But, if it were possible to possess only, one of them, is there any person of genuine culture of mind and heart who would exchange his information and thought and love for all the money he could use in ministering to his idle luxury during all the rest of his life? The searching question asked long ago is still pertinent: "What would a man profit if he were to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Wisdom and righteousness are the' only durable riches.
In these days much is said about "open doors" for commerce. Each nation is jealous of every other nation lest it get more than its share of trade and its accompanying gold. But the doors of mental and moral wealth are always open. They neither need to be unlocked by diplomacy nor beaten down by war. Neither is there any tariff upon truth and goodness and beauty. Behold what treasures come freely to the seeking and expectant soul! There is all great literature, from Job and Sophocles to Shakespeare and Goethe; there is all high philosophy, from Plato to Emerson; there is all science, from Thales to Darwin; there is all art, from Phidias to Raphael; there are all the noble deeds of heroes, sight of which makes the heart throb and the cheek flush ; there are all the great thoughts, noble aspirations, and spiritual longings of mankind running through a' hundred ages ! To all these precious and varied riches the doors are always wide open.
The abundance of this kind of wealth and the permanent satisfaction it brings to its possessor suggest that man was not intended merely to handle and accumulate stocks and land and coin for a few years and then, amid his heaped up material riches, die a spiritual bankrupt. He was designed to amass some of that kind of wealth which can be carried away from earth. It was asked concerning a rich man who had just died: "How much did he leave?" It was answered: "He left everything; he took nothing with him." When a traveler from England or American enters Italy he finds that the gold he carries commands a premium. The soul's gold is more valuable and more stable. It passes at a premium throughout all lands and all worlds.
Nature sets bounds to all things. Every transgression of her ordained limits is rebuked; and, if the rebuke is not heeded, punishment follows. The history of perished nations is that when power and wealth, having become overgrown and arrogant, disregarded the moral law, nature signed their death warrant. The method of Providence may seem to be hindered for a time, but it cannot suffer a final defeat. The commercial demands of a nation may be very great, but they are not as great as the moral demands of all mankind. God may love a single country, but not as much as He loves the whole world. Nations can only subsist by frequent rallyings on the source of inspiration, by returns to ideals of truth and goodness. The whole course of things clearly indicates that, with the moral sentiment declining, calamity cannot be far away. It is to ward off this misfortune that schools and churches exist.
It would be superficial to assume that religion is of itself equal to the task of creating a perfect character or a perfect civilization. In past times the world has suffered much from that error. Those who follow the flag of religion must not follow it blindly. They should know whither it is leading them. They should not mistake superstition for piety, credulity for faith, a metaphysical puzzle for a divine mystery. Religion should be seen as an assemblage of great principles satisfying the mind and awakening reverence in the heart.
Religion cannot alone make a noble civilization, but a noble civilization cannot be made without religion. That wing of the great human army will make the safest advance and gain the noblest triumphs which keeps the banner of moral ideals unfurled at the head of its column.
But it is just as true that secular education, when left alone, is unable to do all that is needed to' be done. Paracelsus no less than St. Francis was a partial failure. Neither of them could supply all the demands of society. Education and religion are both needed. The schools are necessary to train the mind, the churches to spiritualize the heart. Education is to point out the path of knowledge; religion is to show that it bends toward the sky. The one instructs, the other inspires. Trained to exactness and definite results, intellect may be-come proud and self-satisfied. Hence it must often be reminded that there are many inexact and measureless things in the universe; that for much of the time life is enveloped in mystery; and that reverence and faith are as necessary and as becoming as self-confidence and knowledge. Thus the road that leads to the highest human welfare winds in and out of school house and church.
During the summer weeks, that are now a memory, many have sought for recreation in field and forest, by the shores of lake and ocean and river, and among the silent mountains. Some of this great throng will return to the cities with reluctance. But when work is resumed all regret speedily disappears, because, although it is different, these returning toilers find themselves in presence of a scene that is as full of interest as the one they have forsaken: The emotions awakened by a landscape basking in the mid-summer sun, the wonder and awe inspired by a mountain peak hacked and scarred by the frosts and tempests of countless centuries, and the sense of vastness and uncontrolled power called forth by the sea in calm and storm are no more vivid and no more involuntary than the feelings called into being at sight of and meditation over the great human scene. The spectacle of an immense throng of mortals devoting themselves to all common tasks and duties furnishes new ideals and calls strong motives into action. Regret that the days of recreation are ended gives place to delight that one is able and is permitted to join the multitude in doing the world's work and assist in carrying affairs onward toward nobler issues. The delight of rest after work is fully equaled by the delight of work after rest. Thus, every autumn, the reopening of the schools for study and the churches for worship is full of interest. It is a confession of the greatness of the demands of mind and heart.
The influence of universal education cannot be measured. For the coming ten months twelve millions of pupils will be taught by four hundred thousand teachers. That so many millions of youth pass so many days in a mental and moral atmosphere cannot be without great significance. They will receive influences for good that in many cases will be lasting and will powerfully mould the future civilization of our country. Many of those who have been led along the path winding among the fields of science, the groves of philosophy, and the vales of poetry will come forth at the end of their school-life, not only with stores of learning, but with high purposes. There will be some exceptions; but there will be many who will not forsake that path for one that has nothing to recommend it but the lures of sense or the glitter of gold. They will love the works of the mind and will make moral and spiritual values the measure of man's worth. Thus all teachers may return to their desks full of enthusiasm for their noble calling.
A hasty glance at the churches may be disappointing. It is true that they effect no sudden and striking reformation in the individual or society. Their influence does not seem to be very great. Entering one of them on a Sunday morning the visitor might ask of what use is that which is being done. The same old hymns are sung over and over. The same prayers are spoken; the same principles are brought forward; the same illustrations set forth; the same exhortations repeated. Nevertheless, there must be some value in church services or they would cease to exist.
In this country the Protestant churches have about twenty millions of persons under their care. It cannot be possible that the various forms of worship leave all these multitudes of souls untouched. The sermon is often weak and uninteresting in it-self and often makes a heavy draft on the patience of the listeners. But it sometimes occurs that by some sentence uttered by the preacher the mind of the listener is awakened and, by thoughts of its own, is carried into a region higher and purer than the sermon is able to attain. Sometimes the music awakens holy sentiments which without it would have remained in slumber through the whole day. Often the day itself, with its sacred associations, the attitude of spirit becoming to the hour and place of worship, and the sense of companionship and sympathy and unity of purpose do that which sermon and prayer and music are powerless to do. The heart is refined and exalted towards the heights of the supreme Power and Goodness and Beauty. The churches remind us that a higher life than we are living is, not only desirable, but obligatory. They ask us to halt in our too headlong course, at least once in seven days, and reflect over the meaning of the world and our own origin and destiny. If the hours passed within their walls may not be able to demonstrate all propositions of a spiritual beginning and outcome of the world, they may at least cast doubt over all material theories. If they cannot prove the existence of Deity, they can call forth sentiments that make atheism impossible. Powerless to demonstrate eternal life, they may make it seem more probable and, at blessed moments, make the soul feel superior to time and change.
When a famous Frenchman was approaching his last earthly moments he asked a beloved friend to hold his hand. He wished to feel the power and constancy of human affection as long as his mind should hold its consciousness.
The main office of religion is to teach us that in all moments of life and death there is a Friend that never lets go His hold of man. Imperfect as it is the church is the visible emblem of this spiritual clasp. For this its sacrifices were offered and its incense arose in ancient temples; for this its organ peals, its hymns are chanted, its prayers are whispered in our times. It tries to remind us that, while we may extend one hand toward this beautiful world, with the other we should reach out and clasp a hand offered us from a world still more beautiful. We do wrong, therefore, if we permit the industry and gain and pleasure of even this unrivaled age to cause us to neglect the altars which are emblems of this high relationship.
Thus, after our week's of absence from this sacred place, may we all return with zeal unabated, with expectation enlarged. As often as the appointed time arrives, like those worshipers of old, may we repair to this house of the Lord with glad ness. Here may we bring our noblest thoughts, our purest motives, our deepest friendship. Coming hither may we be reminded that we are never more useful, never more happy, than when busy among earth's duties we are also conscious of an infinite Friend in the sky.