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Eddies In The Stream Of Life

( Originally Published 1912 )



The earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.

The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together until now. -Paul.

Each age manufactures or adopts some word already made that serves to indicate its prevalent character or tendency. As upon rock strata marks are found showing how high the waves of some prehistoric sea once rose, so there are words that reveal how high the waves of human thought and feeling and custom have ascended in a given era. Because of the prevalent fossils found in them, geologists give appropriate names to different eras of the old fore-world. One period is named "azoic," because the rocks are devoid of all remains of life. Another is called "devonian," because of the kind of remains abounding in the rocks of Devonshire, in England. Another is named "silurian," after the term Silures, the Celtic inhabitants of Wales. Still another is known as "carboniferous," or the coal-bearing age. Then came the era of man, in which we are now living. When either of these terms is pronounced the student of geology forms a mental picture of a certain stage in the process of world-building.

The course of humanity has been designated in a similar manner. Tradition tells of a stone age, of an iron age, of a bronze age, and of a golden age. This method is repeated in history. There are periods in which such terms as philosophy, art, literature, freedom, theology, law, ecclesiasticism, cathedral building and emigration become the keys which unlock gates opening to great fields of intellectual, social, political, and religious conditions of mankind.

In accord with this method our era is best designated by the word scientific.

In itself, science is not a new term; but it is one to which recent years have given a new and large meaning. Not more deeply did the Israelites love the word righteousness, or the Greeks the word philosophy, or the Romans the word law, or the monastic Christians the word theology, than do we love the word science. A Hebrew prophet saw a condition of society in which the word Holiness was written upon everything. We have substituted the word science for the word holiness. We are stamping it upon all things.

It is now generally believed that the world and all its contents came by a slow process, instead of by an immediate and sudden act. Concerning the reasonableness of this theory much might be said. Perhaps better than anything else it accounts for all the great array of facts and phenomena of the universe. What the discovery of Copernicus was to the movements of the worlds, and the discovery of Newton as to the cause of those movements, the discovery of La Place is to the method of creation, the discovery of Darwin is to the cause of the many forms of life, and the discovery of Spencer is to the plan of human history. In the eleventh century Anselm wrote a theological treatise which so influenced his own and subsequent generations that it was called, "An Epoch-making Book." The same thing may be said of those books which set forth the theory that, from star-dust to man and from man onward through all history, there has been a series of unfoldings and adjustments and advances; the liberating of greater powers; and the opening of larger vistas. They mark a new departure in the history of the race. They will make the nineteenth century famous through a long future.

But the term describing this process has passed over from a scientific to a popular use. Losing its former exactness, it is now used with great free-dom. It is only another name for general progress. It readily lends itself to orators and poets. It is the inspiration of many a beaming optimist when he chants his high millennial strain.

Against these prophets of a more glorious future, these Children of eternal hope no hostile words need be uttered. All hail to those, in every age, whose eyes are fixed upon the future and who are forever pressing that way ! With desire and power to rise above the disagreeable facts of the present, to silence all discords of actual existence by the ravishing harmonies of the ideal, in the world, but not of the world, true children of the sky, without them our common life would be much less endurable. They are like that bird of which Shelley wrote :

"Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue sky thou wingest,
And singing still doest soar, and soaring, ever sngest.

In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O'er which clouds are brightening,
Thou dost float and run ;
Like an embodied joy whose race is just begun."

Nevertheless, not every one who carefully consults the facts of life, nor can any one for all of the time be such a child of the upper world. Earth is our present habitation. Prophecy cannot be entirely separated from history. Expectation is always tempered by experience. The future may look all golden; but there is no disguising the fact that the present is not all golden. Through the ages the world may have moved forward toward something better; but there are many halts and even retreats in the mighty march. The oncoming wave is often dragged backward by an undertow. The earnest expectation of creation waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. Meanwhile, stress must be laid on the word waiteth. It is this enforced waiting, the necessity for so many halts, so many flank movements, the terrible spectacle of so many squadrons shattered and repulsed that makes the scene so tragical and perplexes and, at times, depresses ever lover of his race.

Poetic evolution takes no account of these draw-backs to progress. Thus it sings:

"I am owner of the sphere
Of the seven stars and the solar year,
Of Caesar's hand, and Plato's brain,
Of Lord Christ's heart and Shakespeare's strain."

And thus :

"A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes
And speaks all languages the rose;
And striving to man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form."

And thus :

"The world was once a fluid haze of light,
Till toward the center set the starry tides,
And eddied into suns, that wheeling cast
It is not so with scientific evolution. Between Plato and Caesar, between Christ and Shakespeare lie great, half empty spaces. In the chain of count-less rings many a link has disappeared from view. Many an unbridged chasm lies between the fluid haze of light and the coming of man.

Given life, and organization is the result. The tendency of organization seems to be from the simple toward the complex, from ruder to finer. But this does not always occur. There are in-stances of arrested development, of imperfect species, of degeneration and sinking to lower forms. In order to secure safety without struggle, or to procure food with less effort, animals, once living an independent existence, have ceased to develop; have deteriorated; have ended by becoming mere parasites and appendages of something else. Through disuse, organs of sight, hearing, movement, defense gradually shrink and finally disappear. Nature furnishes all her creatures with means of ascent, but, if they are not utilized, there is descent and the means are sacrificed. The scripture saying: "Even that which he hath shall be taken away," is fulfilled. There have been many falls besides the one in Eden.

The Koran contains a significant story of those who dwelt by the Dead Sea. They had forgotten the inner and sacred meaning of existence and were sinking toward animalism. Heaven sent Moses to warn them of their fate, but they refused to hear him. He then withdrew, but nature did not with-draw. Her inevitable processes continued. But let Carlyle describe what happened in his inimitable way :

"The men of the Dead Sea, when next we visit them, were all changed to apes; sitting on the trees, there, grinning now in the most unaffected manner; gibbering and chattering very genuine nonsense; finding the whole universe now a most indisputable humbug! There they sit and chatter to this hour; only, I believe, every Sabbath there returns to them a bewildered half-consciousness, half-reminiscence; and they sit, with their wizzened, smoke-dried visages and such an air of supreme tragicality as apes may; looking out-through those blinking smoke-bleared eyes of theirs, into the wonder-fullest universal smoky twilight and undecipherable disordered Dusk of Things; wholly an uncertainty, unintelligibility, they and it; and for commentary thereon, here and there an unmusical chatter or mew :—truest, tragicalest humbug conceivable by the mind of man or ape! They made no use of their souls; and so have lost them.

Didst thou never, O traveller, fall in with parties of this tribe? Meseems they are grown somewhat numerous in our day.

With what deliberation nature moves ! She takes no note of time.. She seems almost purposely to postpone the crowning event for which all things are preparation. Like Penelope, there are long nights in which she unravels the work of the day. She acts as if she were experimenting and waits for the result of every attempt before putting forth another effort, even though it may require a halt of a hundred centuries. How prodigal of material also! A myriad of years consumed in forming a species, and, when it is done, it is thrown away as so much rubbish! All the centuries of human history, and all those ages whose amazing duration makes human history seem a thing of yesterday, are full of cast off things. Truly creation does wait for the manifestation of its highest goodness and beauty.

Myths have their origin in facts. Nature is like the form Milton saw sitting by the gate of darkness holding the keys,—half woman, half monster. The stories of Hercules and Phaethon and Samson, sun myths perhaps, show the double character of nature. Andromeda is always chained to the dragon's rock and no Perseus comes for her deliverance. She struggles to free herself, but the monster strengthens his chains. There were golden apples in the Hesperian Isles, but Medusa with her fatal power lived near them. Earth is sometimes called a mother, but like Medea, all kindness gone, she strangles many of her own children. Now there is Celestial beauty, grace and tenderness; now there is ferocity and cruelty beyond measure. There are golden sunbeams; there is blithe air; there is vigor; there is joy in every breath. Again, the .sunbeams fade; the air grows heavy; it swarms with morbific germs which, fastening upon life, destroying its vigor and delight, and sucking up its strength, the myth of the vampire becomes a reality. The coil of the snake, the sting of the tarantula, the spring of the tiger, the snap of the shark, and race feeding upon race, all hint at a certain savagery of nature as yet untamed and untamable. There is a great difference between the world as seen by the poet and seen by the philosopher and the historian. On the Bay of Naples, dotted with peaceful islands, surrounded by mountains and vine-clad hills, this is the way a poet saw and described the scene:

My soul today is far away,
Sailing the Vesuvian Bay;
My winged boat, a bird afloat,
Swims round the purple peaks remote.

Far, vague and dim the mountains swim;
While on Vesuvius' misty brim
With outstretched hands, the gray smoke stands
O'erlooking the volcanic lands.

Here Ischia smiles o'er liquid miles,
And yonder, bluest of the isles,
Calm Capri waits, her sapphire gates
Beguiling to her bright estates.

No more, no more, the worldly shore
Upbraids me with its loud uproar.
With dreamful eyes, my spirit lies
Under the walls of Paradise.

Contrast with this scene the one described by Tacitus and Seneca when, on the fifth of February, 63, the whole region was upheaved by an earth-quake ; and the one described by the younger Pliny and Dion Cassius when, in 79, volcanic forces that had been slumbering for ages, suddenly burst forth, carrying devastation all around the beautiful bay, burying two great cities and bringing death to tens of thousands of human beings. The work of centuries was ruined in a day.

Call the roll of nations that have been and now are not, and note how they came and why they went. The coming was gradual. There was an evolution, an unfolding of higher powers, and the ovcrcoming of obstacles. There was advance, but with many digressions from the main path. But there came a time when the digressions became too frequent. Finally, the main path was lost. The advance ceased and a retreat was inevitable. The Indians of Mexico and Central America, and some of the Australian tribes found by the white races in our era doubtless descended from a higher civilization. Tennyson wrote :

"Perhaps vast eddies in the flood
Of onward time may yet be made,
And throned races may degrade."

By a change of tense, this possible prophecy be-comes actual history. Vast eddies in the flood of time have occurred many times. Babylon, Egypt and the land of the Incas were, in turn, caught in one of these eddies and, ceasing to float forward on the time stream, sank beneath it. In his great volumes, Gibbon points out the causes which brought ruin to the Roman Empire. For half a millenium that nation moved forward on the crest of the wave, but the backward-rushing under-current at last caught it and dragged it down. Now only its fragments are seen tossing on the great sea. This is not the utterance of speculative philosophy; it is a simple statement of history.

Our nation is not yet half as old as was the Roman Empire when it crumbled into ruins. But no student of history can fail to notice the similarity between the moral. and political conditions preceding the downfall of that empire and the present conditions in our own nation ; and he wonders what the future may hold for this republic.

For the delays and retreats in nature man has no demerit. For the degeneration of sponge or spider, of ammonite or barnacle and for arrested development of species fast locked, ages since, in their rock sepulchres, he need visit himself with no reproof. He is not so free from blame when this occurs with-in his own arena of action. For the volcano, the tornado, the malaria he is not responsible. But there are volcanoes in the soul and in society ; cyclones of passion ; death-bearing germs—greed, envy, lust; drouths that dry up the springs of virtue; sirocco blasts that shrivel the heart's fruits and blossoms and leaves and convert life into a desert. When, in a nation or in society or in an individual, the moral stream halts and stagnates, or, Like that fabled whirlpool on the Norwegian shore has only a wild strength to gather into its vortex whatever comes within its fatal circle and drag it down into the abyss; when throned man becomes unworthy to wear a crown, because, through perversity or neglect, he has lost his kingly nature, then blame-worthiness appears and remorse presses hard after. Arrested development and its consequent degeneration is more than a curious fact for the man of science. For the statesman, for the moral philosopher, for the sociologist, for every man and woman it is a fact of grave, of almost tragic importance.

Man possesses the ability to become the greatest factor in the evolution of earth toward its highest meaning. He may also be a hindrance to that development. He can bless, but he can also curse his world. He may form a partnership with God and help rebuild all righteousness; he can also be in league with Apollyon, the destroyer of all good.

Doubtless many of the evils that infest society are unavoidable. But some of them could be banished. There is malaria in marshes; but marshes may be drained. Pestilence lurks in filth ; but filthy cities may be cleansed. There is danger in traveling, but there might be less danger. Every accident may be traced to neglect or violation of some natural law.

The same is true in the moral realm. Social immorality is not unconscious nature's fault. It is the fault of conscious man. The reason our country is made shameful by crime is that the public heart is much too easy and indifferent toward wrong-doing. Reformers are sometimes charged with exaggeration in stating the vice they are trying to remedy. They need not overstate the case. The plain facts are bad enough. Their heated words are perfectly excusable. When we see the intemperance, the uncleanness, the decline of sanctity in the marriage relation, the epidemic of dishonesty in high places, the difficulty of convicting a criminal and the modulation of the penalty to the social or political standing of the wrong-doer, the wonder is that any well-wisher of the race remains cool and indifferent. Once, when the friends of Jesus were excited, the Pharisees came to him and asked him to rebuke them. He answered the indifferent Pharisees by saying that, if his Disciples were silenced, the very stones would cry out. Thus the amazing thing in our present condition is, not that a few are raising their voices against wrong and pleading for a revival of righteousness, but that any can remain silent. Even the stones might well break forth in indignant protest.

Optimism and pessimism are not only much used, but much misused terms. Some think they are optimistic when they are only ignorant or perverse. They either cannot or will not see all the facts of the world. Their temperament may be light and joyous. They are satisfied with the superficial. They have never suffered much. They are not introspective. They have been .charmed "with the flaunting of the tulip flower," but have never tried to find "the maddening riddle of the root of things." Because they are well fed they think no one is hungry. Because they have shoes they think the world is carpeted with leather. They are not optimists; they are egotists. In the same way that which is sometimes called pessimism is only a personal peculiarity. It has no philosophical basis. It is only a matter of temperament or circumstance. The true optimist is he who sees the world as it is; who blinks no facts; who resolutely faces the God of things as they are and yet never loses faith in the God of things as they shall be.

The lesson of the hour is, therefore, not one of pessimism. Neither is it one of optimism. The effort is merely to see and to state the method of nature and insist that action must be based upon it. The fate of the parasite is a standing warning to every nation and every heart. Arrested development is as much a menace to civilization as it is to any species in the animal world. If the planets were to halt in their orbits, they would lose their place in the celestial order; falling away, they would become wild wanderers through illimitable space. The high doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is the unbending law of all existence. If the saint does not hold to his purpose, if he does not advance to nobler endeavors and greater holiness, he sinks toward baser uses and smaller powers. The same thing is true of a city, of a nation of a world. Aware of this fact, we are culpable if we do not put our knowledge into practice. Fore-warned is forearmed. Possibility of descent should teach every heart and every nation so to live that descent becomes an impossibility. If the good results of freeing the slave are not lost, then, to freedom, must be added industry and honesty. If educating all our American youth fails to produce all the good results for which our fathers hoped, to the education of the intellect must be added more moral sentiment and the inspiration of higher purposes. If temperance reform expends too much force in making a political party, there must be ardent friends of temperance who see that its aim is not to form a political party, but to urge man, the individual and man as society, toward sobriety and restraint and an honorable career. If our charities are disapopinting, if they are often unreasonable and superficial and do not remedy the evil, then no one should lose heart ; but all should work the harder at the problem of poverty until a better solution is discovered. If our generation must pass away while the horrors of war are still blighting earth, it may go thankful that they are less frequent than in former ages and buoyed up by the expectation that future generations will find them still less frequent.

Ages ago Paul saw a world struggling to free itself from its bondage of imperfections and wrongs. In the midst of the tumult he beheld the figure of hope. In that form was symbolized a final victory.

Before us lies the same world. Some of its imperfections have disappeared through growth; some of its wrongs have been vanquished by the hosts of right. The past becomes promise of the future. The trust is that we are already approaching the confines of a better era. Our American conscience already shows signs of quickening. When the undertow has spent its force, again the uppertide sweeps onward, bringing vigor and health and cleansing and scattering shells upon the shining sands.

The legend of the enchanted island may find fulfillment. Dark hands came up from sea-depths and dragged the island down into salt sea depths. There it lay until one day from the upper air came a troop of brilliant forms and hovering above it sang songs of what it once was. Hearing them, it broke away from the dark detaining hands and, taking its old place, the sunbeams and summer air brought back more than its former beauty. Perhaps our children may behold such a miracle wrought in behalf of our great land.

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