The Moral Crisis
( Originally Published 1912 )
Whose fan is in his hand and he will thoroughly purge his floor.—New Testament.
History is a record of names and dates and events, but it is something more than a mere record. Going deeper than the fact, it seeks for its cause. A true history of the Greek Republics and the Roman Empire gives, not only an account of their origin and development and decline, but it also gives the causes which in turn produced the various stages in their career. If the forces lying beneath a nation are intellectual or moral or artistic, thus the nation itself will be. Like every human life, every nation has an underlying philosophy that determines its character.
Thus history, in the large, is a great study in cause and effect. The formation of a rain-drop or the course of a river is not a product of chance, but of law. It is not otherwise with nations. Certain forces always produce certain results. Hence one great value in the study of history is the 'light it sheds upon the events of present and coming years. Knowledge of the past becomes wisdom for the future. He who knows what became of ancient Babylon and Egypt, best knows what will become of modern Russia and America. Experience furnishes the most reliable data for prophecy. Yesterday is the schoolmaster of Tomorrow.
The affairs of society are carried forward by a distribution of labor. Under right conditions each one is permitted to engage in the work which, by temperament and education, he is best fitted to perform. The welfare of the world is largely dependent upon every person, be he plowman or poet, performing his task to the full measure of his ability. With such earnestness and strength, with such singleness of purpose each heart can command, it should attempt and accomplish its assigned duty as if the destiny of the universe depended upon its performance. Thus, without clash or interference, every mortal respecting the rights and duties of every other mortal,—as the planets speed in their appointed orbits without coming into collision with their mighty companions,—the world's work would be done and the race at large would find more of happiness.
A similar law appears in the history of nations. Not only each individual, but each people has a special task assigned it. Like persons, races have been experts and specialists. They have impressed their manner of thinking and acting upon other nations and furnish the canon of judgment for all similar thinking and doing among coming generations. When we think of philosophy, we recall the names of Kant and Aristotle and Plato; of science, the names of Darwin and Bacon and Lucretius; of poetry, the names of Goethe and Shakespeare and Homer; of art, the names of Raphael and Giotto and Phidias; of music, the names of Wagner and Beethoven and Mozart; of steam, the names of Fulton and Stevenson and Watt; of electricity, the names of Edison and Franklin and Thales. In similar manner the names of certain nations are always associated with certain ideas and actions. China made the family its central idea. The past was venerable and the authority of ancestors was supreme. Egypt sought to make its institutions eternal. The form of things must not be changed. Hence the Egyptians embalmed the bodies of their dead kings and built pyramids as colossal tombs to preserve them. The Hebrew people set themselves to a study of God and human duty. Through centuries of development they moved forward until they reached the prophets and Christ who set forth the principle that God is wholly spiritual and the duty of man is comprehended in obedience to the moral law. When the word Greek is pronounced, philosophy, art and intellectual and political liberty are suggested. Rome was the embodiment of law and centralized authority. With the gradual decay and final dissolution of that empire other nations arose to do certain things. Thus, calling the roll of all historic kingdoms, it is seen that each one, standing for a certain idea, enthroned it in its national life. Of course other principles and practices were present, but one dominated all others as the sun commands the planets.
In the world of nature and man it is possible for progress in a given direction to be arrested. When this occurs either stagnation and deterioration ensue or a new direction becomes a necessity. In their special field naturalists find many illustrations of this fact. The poetry of evolution celebrates an uninterrupted advance and ascent. A famous quatrain reads:
"The eye reads omens where it goes,
To the same purpose another poet thus writes:
"This world was once a fluid haze of light,
But the more guarded speech of science shows many interruptions to the current of development. There is always an undertow threatening to drag the wave backward. very organism that fulfills all its functions advances; if it fails there is retreat and sinking toward lower forms. The books of science tell of animals that, having an independent existence, in order to secure greater safety and procure their food with less trouble, have degenerated until they became mere parasites and appendages of something else. As a result of this indolence, organs of sight, touch, hearing, locomotion, defense waste away until only a stomach and craving for food are left. The prevailing direction of nature seems, indeed, to be upward and she arms all her creatures with means and opportunity of ascent, but, if they are not utilized, there is degeneration. In the rocks of the middle period of earth there is the tomb of a class of creatures known to geologists as Ammonites, now wholly extinct. They seem to have gone as far as possible in the direction of beauty of form and, not finding anything else to do, they died and disappeared from the life of the world.
The same law prevails in the life of man and in the history of nations. Use begets increased capacity for use; neglect of opportunities forfeits opportunities. The Testament incident, of the one unused talent taken away, is copied from life. Since prehistoric days there has been marked advance on the part of mankind, but progress has never been along a straight road. It has had many a backward turn. There have been many falls beside the one reported to have occurred in Eden. The Mohammedans have a legend concerning men, who once lived by the Dead Sea, turning to animals because they neglected to heed a message from heaven. The legend is but a poetical statement of fact. Not only the companions of Ulysses in Circe's cave, but man everywhere may be mastered by animalism. With every living thing, if there is not growth there is decay. In accordance with this fatal necessity, nations have sometimes descended from a higher to a lower estate. Bacon has said: "When virtue is in growth the arts of bravery flourish; while virtue is stationary, the liberal arts flourish; while virtue is in decline, the arts of pleasure flourish." This contains the history of more than one nation. Ethnologists think that the Indians of Central America and Mexico and the Aborigines of North America descended from races having a higher civilization than their own. Thinking of the future Tennyson wrote:
"Perhaps vast eddies in the flood
With a change of mood and tense his prophecy of the possible becomes a history of the actual. Vast eddies in the stream of progress have been made. Babylon, Egypt, Phenicia, Greece, Carthage and Rome were in turn caught in one of those eddies and after whirling aimlessly for a time were drawn down beneath its floods.
The most critical time in the career of a nation is when it has reached the limit of the course in which its genius has driven it and finds itself unable either to progress further along that line or to change its direction. This trying period sooner or later appears in the life of every nation. Persia delighted in wars of con-quest. She swept over the surrounding nations like a devastating tempest. But there came a time when she could go no farther in her conquests. Then she re-signed herself to luxury and her descent to the grave was rapid. Spain loved conquest, but when she had annexed a new world to her original domain and began to pillage it, she was on her way toward national disgrace. Papal Italy sought wealth; but when her coffers were full of gold, wrested from Europe by the power of superstition, she was on the eve of destruction. Prance sought military glory, but at last came Waterloo. Thus always there comes a crucial test of the fitness of a nation to live. There is always a winnowing process. Some mighty Spirit is forever making the round of earth with a fan in its hand wherewith to cleanse all things. There is always chaff to be swept away and burned. Alas for that nation whose threshing floor yields only chaff!
In the division of labor among the nations, to the Saxon race in England and America, two great tasks were given. One of these is the application of knowledge to practical affairs; the other is the realization of freedom. The former of these tasks has been zealously pursued. As a result, such power over nature, such utilizing of all forms of force, such wealth producing agents the world has never before witnessed. Applied science has wrought a revolution in human life. The miracles of Thor and Hercules and Prometheus have been outdone.
Nor has the second task been neglected. From the days of the English Charter there has been a movement away from tyranny and absolutism toward individual freedom. Caesarism belongs only in the past. In the country where once a king said, "I am the state," now there is no king. The people are the state. There is no monarchy in which the sovereign's will is supreme. He is limited by the will of his subjects. Liberty is everywhere an accepted fact.
But now the momentous question is, what shall we do when these tasks are fully completed? Having reached the limit of development in one direction, shall we rest there and begin to decline or is a new course possible? There is dominion over nature. Her forces have become our slaves. But for what purpose have we mastered them? Have we no higher use for these mighty Sampsons than to put out their eyes and set them to grinding out corn, only changing their occupation at times when we wish them to make sport for us at some festival of our twentieth century god Mammon? Steam, gravitation, electricity are all put to the one task of making wealth. Cortes pretended that his mission to Mexico was to glorify God by bringing its people under the sway of the cross. But once he so far revealed his true purpose as to send a messenger to the capital with the ominous words: "If the king of Mexico has any gold, let him send it to us, for I and my companions have a disease of heart which only gold can cure." There has been much pretense that we are subduing the continent and making a conquest of the far off islands in the interest of a higher moral des-tiny. In many cases this is done to conceal the real purpose. Like the cruel Spaniard in Mexico, many have contracted that form of heart disease which only gold can cure. The winning of weath is not a vice in itself. It is the way it is won and used that makes it a vice or a virtue. More than a century ago John Hancock said in Boston: "Despise the glare of wealth. Break asunder with noble disdain the chains with which the Philistines are binding you." Perhaps our nation has given too little heed to the exhortation of one of its patriot fathers. Judas pretended to love Jesus, but there came a time in his life when he loved silver more.
Great opportunities should be only an arena for the performance of great duties. The freedom we possess in America is such an opportunity. Are the duties equal to it? Freedom should be only the power to do right. It is not permission to do as we may wish; it is permission to do as we ought. Its guide is not the passion of a mob; it is the reason of mankind.
It is not permission to murder or to hold a slave; it is permission to keep from being murdered or held as a slave. Its basis is justice; its motive is human rights; its aim is the welfare of all classes of mankind. It is to be feared that in our zeal for freedom we have transgressed its laws, and, unrestrained, have committed crimes in its name. We sometimes confuse license with liberty, passion with reason, and the privileges of one class or color with the rights of all human beings. We have been so determined that all shall be free that we would destroy ourselves as a nation to maintain our boasted privilege of doing as we please. We have tried to drag the austere Goddess of Liberty down from her high throne and place her on a level with the uncontrolled passions of a raging mob; we have tried to bribe her with gold to help subvert order; we have treated her with low familiarity when we ought to have adored her. It is no wonder we are now receiving her noble scorn.
The great Italian poem tells of a thicket in the sad underworld whose bushes and trees are the souls of those unhappy mortals who have committed self-destruction. Among their branches the loathsome harpies make their homes.
It is not impossible that in some dark Inferno of the future the great and proud nations of the present may find themselves. They may be seen as colossal trees, the abode of monsters, in the fateful forests of those that have destroyed themselves. Thinking of our own country and some of its vices and crimes, its future awakens anxiety. Already the harpies are circling around it peering with their pale, gaunt faces among its branches, as if seeking a place to build their nests and rear their filthy brood. What are these harpies? Among them is the lust for power without regard to the means by which it is gained. There is political corruption and demagoguery that tramples upon right to gain partisan or personal success. In the black flock may be seen the insane greed for money that turns the legitimate exchange of food and fuel and clothing into a gambling game. There is the hatred of classes and the tyranny of combinations, on the one side of money on the other of labor, and the disregard of both of honesty and fair dealing. There is the fraudulent transaction of municipal and state and national business and the lack of just retribution for educated criminals who have powerful friends. There is the reckless disregard of human life; the sudden lapsing of a whole community into savagery; the uprising of frenzied mobs that, becoming inflamed with a murderous frenzy, defy all law and commit deeds which, in cruelty, are more horrible than those once committed by the barbarous tribes our so called civilization displaced. There is poverty breeding crime; there is luxury breeding vice. Thus the black flock may yet take full possession of the great tree.
Thinking of foreign invasion and subjugation, long ago it was said, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." All dread of foreign foes belongs to the past. Now all danger is from within. The worst foes are they of our own household. Only eternal vigilance can preserve our nation from these enemies.
Within memory of some of us a million men sprang to arms at the call of duty. The principle gained, the armies disappeared as if by magic; like the followers of the Highland Chieftain, they sank out of sight by the wave of a hand. Some of us then fondly believed that henceforth our nation would be pure and noble. Events show that our hopes remained unrealized. During those perilous and uncertain days of tumult one of our poets in vision saw the three Fates by a river. Drawing near them he beheld them washing the nation's shroud in the stream of death. Thus he overheard them crooning at their work:
"Still men and nations reap as they have strawn,
O'er what quenched grandeur must the shroud be drawn?
What make we, murmurest thou? and what are we?
But that crisis passed and the winding sheet of the nation was folded and laid away unused. Since that time many have become careless of danger. We have seen peril for other nations, but not for our own. In those former years the only thing that saved us was an awakened conscience. The austere Spirit presiding over human destiny suddenly appeared with the fan which separates the false from the true. A mighty fire was kindled whose flames leaped heaven high all the way from the Potomac to the Ozark mountains. It was a fire in which much of our national chaff was consumed. Are we approaching a period when our nation will need a new conflagration?
It is the work of children to create imaginary fears. Let us not imitate them. But let us neither be blind to real dangers nor place our reliance for safety upon those things which in the most trying hour are powerless to save us. In material power and resources our country is at the head of all nations. But in themselves these are insufficient. There was once a man who grew in power and wealth and who, in his pride, said, "Go to, I will build greater barns. Then I will say to my soul: Eat drink and take thine ease. Thou has much goods laid up for many years." Just then a voice was heard saying: "Thou fool! This very night thy soul will be required of thee," The truth of this parable is never outgrown.
Our population is now less than a hundred mil-lions. It is estimated that the arable land of this nation would produce sufficient food for nine hundred millions. If with eighty millions we cannot prevent such social and commercial and political wrongs as those which now disgrace and menace our nation, how will it be when nearly a thousand millions are here? Our country must deal with this mighty problem. If the eastern monarch wept when he saw his vast army passing, much more should statesmen be impressed when they think of the countless host soon to be marching across this continent. It is enough to solemnize every heart to ask how they are to be govererned and educated and made worthy citizens in the republic. The question is not to be ignored; it is to be solved.
Evermore Providence sets before us the lesson of history. There, if we will, we may learn the meaning of the ethical laws, and that right alone is eternal. Neither power nor wealth nor philosophy nor art can save a nation from destruction. All of these the perished nations have had in abundance. Broader and deeper then must be the history of a people whose empire outlasts the centuries' many changes. Moral reformation must follow moral reformation like the waves of the sea until, every usurper dethroned, Righteousness is crowned and sceptered. Thus only can a nation prove its right to exist; thus only can it fulfil the divine intention; thus only can it be worthy of a place in that firmament whose stars shine undimmed through a hundred ages.