Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Man Acting

( Originally Published 1912 )

My Father worketh hitherto and I work.—Jesus.

The knowledge that will hold good in working, cleave thou to that.—Carlyle.

Having considered man as a being possessing thoughts and feelings, it is almost impossible to avoid seeing him as a being capable of many and varied actions. In the former survey, attention was held by the question as to what he is; in the latter, by the question as to what he does. Speaking after the manner of the physiologists, it is the difference between organ and function. Using the terms of physics, it is the difference between static and dynamic forces,—between steam in a boiler, or re-posing, potentially, in water, and steam turning the wheels of an engine and pulling a train or driving a ship. Employing the language of philosophy, it marks the transition from being to phenomena, from reality to appearance. In more common speech, it is moving from theory to practice; or the conversion of thoughts into things.

These different terms all arise from the difference in the point of view. But they all mean mind in motion. It. is the soul going out through various channels,—as of eyes, tongue, hands, feet, to impress itself upon outside nature. Actions are thought and feeling expressing themselves; spirit making new forms for itself. Seen for a day, and made by an individual or a community or a nation, these forms are called events. When reported daily they are called news. Seen for centuries, made by the human race, and recorded in books, they are called history. Universal history, including languages, laws, governments, arts, and religions, is an account of the manner in which the universal mind has impressed itself upon the world. It is a record of man acting.

Because the period is remote, and because of the darkness which enshrouds the beginnings of human life upon our planet, it is impossible to speak definitely of the way in which thought first manifested itself in forms of use or beauty. Perhaps a long time elapsed before this occurred. The first actions may have been mere spontaneous outgoings of some purely physical desire. Some light may be thrown on the problem by a glance at the way in which each new individual begins earthly existence. At the commencement of its career, there is no other creature so helpless as the human infant. It is completely enslaved by things. Left uncared for it will surely perish. Even those who, in after life, become heroes and demigods, cannot take care of themselves when first they arrive upon earth. In the popular legend, Romulus and Remus became great and powerful. One of them made his name immortal by laying the foundations of Rome. But, cast on the rock, they would have died had it not been for the wolf and the kind hearted shepherd. In after life, Apollo left his impression on many things; he gave justice; he gave music; he gave inspiration to prophets and poets; he gave the art of medicine; he protected flocks; he founded cities; and yet, when an infant on the island of Delos, he would have perished if the wandering nymphs had not provided for him.

These pleasing fables veil a universal fact, namely, that those who may, later, care for many, must themselves first be the objects of much care. What mind they may possess is of no use to them; it is not available. In some animals, that which serves for them as mind, seems to take possession of their whole bodies almost instantly. It is not so with the human creature. It comes into possession of its powers very gradually. There is some action, but it is action unguided. It is weeks before the mind gets sufficiently into the hands to enable them to make a guided attempt to grasp some bright object that has attracted the eyes. Months more are required for the mind to get into the feet, so that the exploit of moving from place to place may be achieved even at the risk of many mishaps being encountered by the way. Another period must ensue for the mind to inform lips and tongue sufficiently to make intelligible speech,—at least, to make a language intelligible to any one except the mother. The child is a prisoner of circumstances. Slowly and laboriously it breaks through one hindering wall after another in its struggle for freedom. At first almost all its actions are defective. When it tries to walk, it totters and falls. When it tries to speak it hesitates. If it tries to draw a toy wagon, it upsets it and runs against every object in the room. If it finds a hammer, it misses the things it ought to hit and pounds the things it ought to miss. When it begins to write, it holds the pen in the most awkward way and makes the letters after an unapproved pattern. When it is learning to play the piano, it takes a wrong position and strikes all the discords first.

But, one by one, these limitations are overcome. Gradually, a more and more complete coordination between mind and body is acquired. The once helpless creature is transformed into a being of most wonderful and varied powers. It becomes a battery that can send off sweeping currents of guided force in every direction. Mind becomes a hundred forms of motion. The arm is servant of the will. It wields a hammer, swings an axe, pushes a plane, draws a sword. The hand becomes a marvel of dexterity. Yielding to the slightest wish, it can guide a pen making it an expression of deepest thought and lightest fancy. It can weave myriads of threads into cloud-like lace. In performing surgical operations, it moves with the most delicate and amazing precision among tissues and veins, and can arrest its motions within a thousandth part of an inch. It can run with incredible rapidity over the keys of a musical instrument, turning the thoughts and reveries and passions of the soul into sweet and triumphant and pensive strains. Organs of speech which, at first, can only utter a cry in obedience to instinct, becomes so imbued with intelligence that, in their expression, they range over the whole mysterious octaves of existence. With many thousand words at command, philosophers, orators, prophets, and poets can express all the thoughts their minds may think and all the passions their hearts may hold. When all his organs are obedient to his soul, man becomes the kind of being thus pictured.

"His tongue is framed to music,
And his hand is armed with skill,
His face is the mould of feeling, A
nd his heart the throne of will."

Like the men of science, some modern students of the soul have sought for a term that would express all its meaning and powers. In the study of external nature the chosen word is force. Heat, light, sound, electricity, color, growth, decay, wind, rain, and seasons are only various manifestations of one force becoming active Thus, some students of the soul, rejecting a part of the teaching of former times, resolve all phenomena of mind and heart into one term. All the myriad thoughts that some-times seem to swarm in the brain, all conscious and unconscious acts of will lying back of every accomplished deed, all the gravest passions and lightest and most fugitive fancies are a form of movement. Mind is only another name for motion. It is an uninterrupted stream pouring along through the continent of human life. Sometimes winding to and fro, but moving forward ; and, whether called intellect, sensibility, or will, it is the same river fed from the same springs.

Geologists find chasms among mountains and depressions in the lower lands that were once the beds of rivers. The fixed rock shows how high the water once rose and its gradual decline; the detached stones are worn round and smooth ; and, in places, sand heaps are found showing where by some cause an obstruction was made to the ancient stream. Now lying in quiet repose, once that long course was the scene of forward sweeping force. Thus those works of mankind in the far past, which now lie in ruins, show where once swept a flood of mental and emotional force. Perished civilizations are the beds of rivers once formed by the soul. Flowing through a country a great stream, like the Mississippi, becomes cause of the fertility of the adjacent soil, and cities springing up along its shores add beauty to the whole scene. This is what the moving mind has done for the world. Herodotus said that the Nile is the cause of Egypt. The onflowing soul has done much more than the Nile. It has made all ancient and modern civilization.

Let us try to picture earth untouched by any human thought or human toil.

Some philosophers once called the mind of a child a tabula rasa,—a surface with nothing written upon it Thus earth, before the advent of man, may be pictured. Now we may see fifteen hundred millions of persons who are the successors of millions of millions who have been on the earth. There must have been a time when only a single spot on our globe was peopled. Now there are great cities, roads, fields, ships, languages, arts, and libraries. Then, none of these things was present. Earth had not felt the touch of spade or plow disturbing its surface. No machinery was heard. No sail was upon the sea. No state had been founded. No orator was heard pleading for right. No hymn, no prayer was heard ascending toward heaven. There was only a great solitude. Impossible as any perfect comparison may be, the difference between earth then and now is very great. What is the cause of this difference? It can all be traced to the expanding mind of mankind. It is the soul acting. It is thought and emotion flowing into deeds.

Hugh Miller tried to describe a progressive panorama of creation as it unfolded before the mind of the author of the book of Genesis. The worlds are represented as passing from a condition of con-fusion and deformity to a condition of order and beauty. Mists roll away; sun and moon and stars emerge and take up their endless course; light breaks forth ; land and water are divided ; the sea-sons revolve; plants, and then animals, and then man may be seen.

The scene is, indeed, impressive; but it must be confessed that a panorama of all the the period lying between man, standing on the confines of barbarism, and man occupying his present place would not be much less amazing. It would include all forms of works, from the stone hammers of the Cave Dwellers and the rude Druid pillars at Culloden to steam engines and Gothic cathedrals of those who live in cities. It may be assumed that all those marvelous changes, appearing in the universe before the coming of man, were accomplished by force acting with intelligence. Mind was at work on the world; but it was mind operating out-side of man. That which has produced the changes since that time is also mind, but it is mind within man. History is one long record of man acting.

The Bible story of creation represents the Creator as looking with satisfaction upon the results of each day's work. For much of his work, man may also congratulate himself. If the creation of the universe causes glory to encircle the throne of God, a part of its splendor may be found down in the civilization that man has created. That which Deity was to the universe, humanity is to history. That which a German philosopher said of the world, may be no less truly said of history : "It is an enormous Will rushing into form." In devout mood, standing in the vale of Chamouni this is what Coleridge heard :

"Ye meadow streams, with gladsome voice,
Ye pine groves, with your soft and soul-like sounds;
Ye lightnings, dread arrows of the clouds,
Ye signs and wonders of the element
Utter forth God and fill the hills with praise."

Looking upon the work of humanity, in our modern days culminating in such wonders, something like this may be heard :

Ye railway trains, outdistancing the flying clouds,
Ye telegraph, destroyer of space and time,
Ye steamships, mocking at tides and winds,
Ye cities, centers of art in diverse forms,
Ye libraries, where heaped up treasures are,
Ye million homes, where love and kindness dwell,
Ye temples, rising toward the sky,
Utter forth Man and fill the years with praise.

Many and great were the forces required to make the world. But there came a time when something was needed on earth which merely physical forces could not accomplish. The sun might fling off earth from its blazing circumference and send it whirling at white heat through space; but the sun could not build a city. Chemistry might make the marble of Pentelicus, but it could not make the Parthenon. Electricity might rive the oak and cause the hills to tremble; but it could not paint a Madonna. Gravitation might decree a path for every planet; but it could not plan and construct and operate a railway. Students of science say that while earth was cooling, in preparation for the coming of life, it was an arena of great convulsions. There were long continued tempests. Rain poured down like rivers and almost incessant thunder roared and rattled among the hills. But there came a time when these forces were powerless in presence of the new tasks to be performed. They could not utter the orations of Demosthenes ; nor write the poetry of Homer; nor give the laws of Moses; nor compose the Sermon on the Mount.

Perhaps if man had known at the beginning what was required of him, he might have sunk before the magnitude of the task. But this was concealed from him. His first applications of mind to nature were very simple. He twisted the boughs of trees together to ward off sun and rain. He scratched the earth with a crooked stick and planted seeds. He gave names to things. He began to make rude pictures of what he thought. He made an instrument that would give forth two or three rhythmic sounds. He discovered that a log would float in water. Then he discovered that, if it were large enough, it would float with his weight added to it; then that it could be moved, and he made' an oar; then that the wind would help, and he made a sail; then that it could be guided, and he made a helm By doing, he learned to do. Each thing done was a promise of something greater. When the earth was scratched with a stick, steam plows were on the way. When the first seed was planted Iowa cornfields and Dakota wheatfields were assured. The picture or letter, etched upon a leaf or cut into a stone, made art and literature only a matter of time. The tiles found at Babylon were a preparation for the Bodleian Library. The hollowed out log with which to cross a river prefigured the ocean steamer. But what are all these works from beginning to end? What is their cause? It is man acting. All that makes this twentieth century so wonderful is the result of mind in motion.

The greatness of this age does not all belong to itself. It belongs to all ages. If the century plant blooms in these years, all the past years were required for its growth. Our liberty is great; but how many hearts have worn themselves out that it might become great! Our language is wonderful in its power of expression; but it is the result of a hundred centuries of expression. Bryant wrote Thanotopsis when he was only nineteen years old; but the thought and pathos of more than nineteen hundred years poured through the soul of that gifted youth forming the grandeur of the motive and composing the minor music of that notable poem. Our religion is formed out of the reverence and hope of all the countless millions of human beings who, alternating between joy and sorrow, have passed across our globe from the cradle to the tomb. All implements of the farm, all tools of the shop, all machinery of commerce, all comforts and luxuries of the home, all the use and beauty of our complex modern life are in great part the results of an army of workers who long since turned to dust. Jesus said: "My Father worketh hitherto and I work." This seems, also, to be the saying of all mankind. By His work God made earth in outline and then endowed his children with power to carry the plan to completion. Deity formed the vase; humanity filled it with flowers.

A Latin poet wrote of many strange transformations. The blood of a dying hero was changed into a flower. A nymph was changed into a laurel. An ivory statue, by love, was changed into a living form.

These fables are far outdone by facts. Think of Plato turned into philosophy ; Dante turned into poetry; Christ turned into religion! All the way from Socrates to Servetus the blood of martyrs has been transformed into flowers fairer than the hyacinth, flowers of courage and faith and kindness. In Ovid's story a Dryad was transformed into a constellation. But man, acting through the ages, has changed thoughts and emotions into deeds whose luster dims the stars.

No hasty words should be uttered against those who have passed much of their lives in the realm of pure thought. They also have been of value to the world. If, while they lived, their thoughts did not turn into, deeds, they became inspiration and guide to many who came after them. It has often occurred that the ideas of one, become the facts of succeeding ages. The Hebrew prophets foretold a savior and, in after centuries, Christ came. Men studied the powers and laws of steam and electricity, and, in the last century, Fulton and Morse came and applied the acquired knowledge to life. Berke-ley wrote:

"Westward the star of empire takes its way."

This idealism turned into a noble realism, and, a hundred years later, these states were formed into a nation.

But there have been times in which the philosophy of life was too remote from the actual world. Thought too much terminated in itself. Life was a gallery of canvases without any pictures upon them. There was only thought of possible paintings. In the middle ages the mind moved only on its own axis. There was no forward movement. Systems of theology were constructed in the air and did not come in contact with earth. As an object of study and solicitude, a great part of the human world lay untouched. Civilization was arrested that a few scholars might play with logical forms and reach absurd conclusions. Agriculture could not be improved nor human welfare advanced until these schoolmen had determined whether the Holy Ghost is a person or an influence and whether the halo around the head of Christ is composed of created or uncreated light. A few theologians were soaring among the clouds while the multitudes were walking in poverty and ignorance on the ground. The mind was, indeed, acting, but it was producing nothing of much value.

It was written in praise of a great man that he brought philosophy from heaven to earth. That should constitute much of the praise of these years. They are trying to take religion out of the placid heaven of speculation and are applying it to the affairs of this turbulent earth In his ability to pass from sentiment to action Christ stands out in great prominence. His words were no more eloquent than His life. This should be a prevailing characteristic among all Christians. Their actions should be as noble as their philosophy. We cannot speak eloquent words inciting others to action, hence we ourselves must act. Wreaths, rewarding great and original thought, are only woven for a few foreheads in any generation, but many may be woven for those who perform acts of goodness. When religion becomes nothing less than man acting reverently toward the Creator and acting justly toward all created things, civilization will hurry onward ; and the world made by humanity will rival the world made by Deity. The soul must express itself. As from some infinite Power earth and all its many forms of life have proceeded, so the soul must send forth its thought and love on errands of goodness and beauty all over this same earth, thus increasing its natural splendor and thus accomplishing the purpose of Him who long ago girded it with granite, domed it with infinite azure, and curtained its eastern and western doors with fire-rimmed clouds.

But we cannot wait for the coming of a universal civilization. That which we do must be done soon. Our thoughts and feelings must now be changed into good deeds. Herein is our greatest usefulness and our greatest happiness, in each new day going forth to perform the work of that day. Whoso does this, down upon him the setting sun will fling approval and night will bring sweet repose. Nor will he fear that other night, when he finds himself sinking into a deeper slumber, for that may be only a brief rest preparing him for greater thoughts, more exalted feelings, and nobler actions in some country whose days are not marked by rise and set of sun.

Home | More Articles | Email: