Inspiration And Duty
( Originally Published 1912 )
" I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. "—PAUL.
The men of science tell us that every form of force comes from some force preceding it. It is the same energy under a new name and with a new application. The power in an engine was in steam before it was in the engine, was in fuel before it was in steam, and was in the sun before it was in fuel. When burned, a pound of coal gives out the same quantity of heat that the sun gave it when, long ago, as plant or tree it was growing in a forest. The heat and light on our hearth-stones are caused by the releasing of imprisoned sun-beams.
The students of material things, however, have not been able to discover the original source of power. The sun may be the source of all motion on this planet, but what is the source of the sun itself? Perhaps the answer to this question does not lie within the domain of science. Its work is to mark the changes, to recognize the many forms this Proteus assumes, and discover the law under which the manifold transitions of force occur. When the relation of each visible fact to every other visible fact is discovered, the task of science is ended.
But the philosophic mind cannot rest among mere facts and phenomena and laws. Although it may never discover, it will not abandon its search for the Cause of all things. It tries to resolve the many into the One. In the midst of great diversity there is an all-pervading unity. The motion of the planets and the fall of an apple are identical. The outlines of a plant may be found in the seed and then repeated in the leaf. The most diverse things possess striking similarities. There is a relation between symmetrical form and harmonious sounds. The pulse-beat is the unit of musical notation. The terms of one art are used to express another art. A steam-ship is a thought in action; a cathedral is a religious aspiration wrought into stone ; poetry and history are human sentiment and human actions made into literature. Thus, in the midst of this scene of endless transformation, the inquiry arises whether there is not some changeless substance. Back of every person is there supreme Personality ; back of every thought an infinite Thought ; back of all forms of right a Right, similar in kind, but differing in degree,—resembling each other as the ocean covering three-fourths of the globe resembles a dew-drop or as a sun lighting a system of worlds resembles a lamp that lights a room?
These reflections lead to the inquiry: Whence come our ideas of duty? The sense of right manifests itself in many forms, but where is its original source ? How much of it is a product of experience, how much of it comes from inspiration? What proportion of earth, what proportion of heaven is present in forming the motive of right action? Where does the rising tide meet the down-flowing stream? How much celestial fire is mixed with our terrestrial clay?
One teacher has compared the infant mind to a sheet of white paper upon which anything may be written; or it resembles an empty room and time and circumstance determine what kind of furniture may be placed within it, what kind of pictures shall' adorn or deface its walls. Other teachers insist that the mind brings with it certain underived and original powers enabling it to receive the impressions which events confer and shape and color them at will. Rain and sunbeams falling upon a stone do not produce the same effect that they do when falling upon a seed. Thus the same events falling upon different minds produce different results. Some persons think the soul is a group of sensations acting in turn as thought, as volition and emotion. Others maintain that this is a confusion of cause and effect; that sensation might go on forever without thought if there were no independent mind to transform impressions into ideas. An English philosopher once said: "There is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses," to which a German philosopher responded: "Except the mind itself." It has been taught that all knowledge and all ideas of right have been formed solely by human experience acting through unnumbered ages. As myriads of coral insects toiling and giving their lives in turn slowly uprear a marvelous structure, so races and nations and generations have contributed their work and their lives to build the great soul of Humanity. To balance this there are those who believe that ideas are native to the soul and experience is only the field in which they blossom and bear fruit.
"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
A theory of morals that reached some prominence in the last century made usefulness the origin and motive of all right actions. A favorite text of its scriptures was: "Honesty is the best policy." Its standard of moral measurement was external. Its prophets said: "The Kingdom of God is without you." Profit was a sanction for virtue; loss a warning for vice. Goodness, in the long run, is more profitable than evil, hence it ought to be chosen as -the path of life. Too great indulgence unfits one for work, hence temperance is better. Indolence leads to poverty, hence industry is to be preferred. Of this theory of morals prudence is the capital virtue.
The value of this should not be underestimated. It is much better that man should do right merely from economic motives than not do right at all. Even the fear of hell may be a minister of goodness. For a man to maintain a good character for selfish reasons is partly commendable. A civilization built on utility alone would be much better than barbarism swayed only by passion.
But- the question keeps returning whether there is not something involved in right actions that is higher and more imperative than calculation and prudence. It is true that the good is also the useful and that evil often defeats its own aims, but usefulness is more a companion than a cause and motive of goodness. Our morality is not based upon arithmetic and political economy. It seems impossible to trace all the many acts which ennoble human history to selfishness and a balancing of probable results. In morals, as in physics, the fountain is higher than the stream. Human righteousness is perhaps a descending stream whose source is in some Alpine region where rectitude is self existent.
The history of one virtue cannot be written with-out including some account of the laws which govern all virtue. Prudence relates to things near at hand, to the common affairs of our daily life. But this talent is related to something higher than business. Clothed in the plain garments of a peasant, nevertheless it is the son of a King. All this administrative ability that aims no higher than making a living is a form of the soul. It is royalty in disguise, a King Alfred temporarily superintending the baking in a wayside hut. Trace it home and strip off its disguise and its regal character will instantly appear. A man cannot do his every day work without conscious or unconscious reference to the magnificent laws that govern the universe. When he uses a wheel or a lever or a water-fall, when he plants in the spring-time, when he cultivates his crops, when he waits for the fruit to ripen he confesses the sovereignity of certain principles that are as old as all the past and as new as all the future. With what forethought nature has arranged that none of her homely laws shall be broken with impunity! Gravitation sees that a pin as well as a planet falls toward a center. The saint, no less than the sinner, must conform to its authority. No sophistry of satan could persuade Jesus that the principle governing falling bodies would be set aside on his behalf. If he cast himself from the heights no friendly angels would interpose to avert the natural consequences of his rash act. Man learns that if he would succeed he must have good sense and that mother-wit will often avail where prayers would fail. If one have other things to balance it he cannot have too much earth-wisdom. Perception of details cannot be too minute. The application of power to nature cannot be too great. Let there be belief in money, in supply and demand, in protection of private interests, in the survival of the fittest. Only let no one think these things are a finality. All the laws of nature, all the events of history, all the principles of political economy are only appearances. In their ultimate analysis all things may be resolved into mind. However solitary and seemingly remote the path, if followed far enough, it is certain to terminate at a spiritual center which is the primal source of all power, all beauty, and all goodness.
No fault need be found with the good conduct that springs from prudence and utility. Only the question reappears, whether morality does not possess a higher authority than this. Its usefulness is a result and not a cause. It was no balancing of profit and loss that made the moral heroes and saviors of history. They did not take counsel of their own self-interest; they rather yielded to the austere mandate of a law that seemed to come from the august heavens. Experience did not make this law; it only discovered it. Man did not invent the principles of chemistry. He only learned them. Thus man did not invent the principles of virtue. He discovered them and their application to life. When a wire is strung we surrender to the pre-existing law of electricity. So, when the heart does right, it is acting in obedience to the authority of pre-existing Right. To think that the human race invented the principle of gravitation would not be much more irrational than to think the principle of virtue was evolved from experience. It is more rational to think that they both inhere in the nature of things; both are outgoings of the Power which makes and maintains the world; both come with the same authority to mankind.
Every advance of humanity has come less by calculation than by inspiration. Long before the theory of use and self-interest, as touching morals, was enunciated the tonic command was given " Do right though the heavens fall." Always there have been those who referred their actions to something higher than themselves and thus serve as examples of what all should do. They did not inquire as to results. The only question was: " Is it right?" Assured of that, they were nobly negligent of all personal consequences.
Having done their duty from a high motive, beauty and use followed, as the flowers of May and the harvests of July follow the gleaming sun and the falling rain.
Judged by prudence and profit the career of the Palestine Teacher was a colossal failure. But that is a poor way to measure such lives. If Christianity loses its power in the world it will be because its pre-tended representatives have lost sight of the high and sacred impulse which launched it upon the world in the beginning. It would be a fatal error to think that the loss of burning devotion to truth and goodness can be compensated for by an external conformity to custom and tradition. Mere respect for its forms and ceremonies or pride in its historic conquests cannot take the place of the spiritual passion of religion. Those who gave Christianity to the first century of our era were mastered by moral fervor and the sentiment of Duty. They no more thought of disobeying their highest instincts than do the tides attempt disobedience when they feel the drawing of the stars.
Everything great seems to have descended. Man is only the channel through which it comes. In every notable performance something higher than the per-former seems to be involved. One man's work is better than another's because there is more of the Creator in it. That is, he has been more willing to move in harmony with the divine laws. His highest conviction becomes the reason of his action. He goes forward calmly regardless of all personal results, sweet or baneful; indifferent as to whether defeat or victory awaits him, as a soldier, if only the flag under which he has enlisted is kept flying in advance. Doing thus his work is accepted and established. It takes rank with the works of nature. People wish to look upon it, as they wish to look upon the mountains or the ocean or Niagara. Whether writing a great poem, painting a great picture, building a great cathedral or making a noble life, he who is thus engaged must work in harmony with the Power which planned and built the universe.
If everywhere else man is a receiver before he is a doer, this must also be true in morals. Whatever is in mankind was potentially in the world before mankind. Truth is Deity flowing through the intellect; love is Deity flowing through the heart; duty is Deity flowing through the conscience. Our sufficiency is of God. The same power which gives beauty to the rose gives goodness to the heart. Truth in thought, virtue in behavior, and gladness in the heart are identical in their origin with attraction and cohesion, with trade winds and gulf streams, with ascending mists and descending streams in nature. As intellect reads the laws of atom and world, so clearly can the heart read the scriptures of duty written within itself. Innocence cleanses the spiritual sight. The pure in heart shall see God. The tender and receptive conscience is a channel through which heaven sends confidential messages to earth.
One reason for the low moral condition of political patties, the formalism and coldness of churches, and the falling away of society at large from a central nobility of character may he found in the substitution of calculation and self-interest for inspiration and inner conviction. There is no greater misfortune can befall an age than the loss of its ethical ideals. Take away its science, government, cities, railways, even take away its books, pictures, and altars and it would not be so poor as if its spiritual insight and belief in the Perfect were taken away. With the soul left free to think and wonder and adore, quickly enough science, literature, music and temples will appear. With this gone, all is gone.
The idea that morality rests upon calculation or convenience cannot produce a high form of society. It is better to assume that it is an essential quality of the world inhering in its very structure and comes with all the authority of a command of God. The greatest souls, from old Asia onward to new America, have been those who, beyond humanity with its experience, saw a God with his authority. Science tells us much about forces bound up in nature, but mere force cannot produce virtue. Astronomy once filled the heart with reverence, but that was when the myriad worlds and the awful spaces filled the heart with thoughts of a God. This made eloquent and impressive each clear midnight. Take the thought of Deity away from the infinite depths of the starry firmament and much of their sublimity is gone. At the touch of atheism the world loses much of its splendor. Thus if science would confer its most lasting benefit upon humanity it cannot too quickly restore reverence for a God who fills all worlds with His presence. With right conduct founded only on utility and a world deprived of its Creator man cannot reach a high degree of moral excellence nor a great and lasting happiness. With only this to sustain him his life will be without inspiration, his death without hope.
Before society reaches that calamity we trust its footsteps will be arrested. Now we are suffering from a partial eclipse of the soul. Material interests are between it and the source of its spiritual light and warmth. This cannot be perpetual. The shadow will pass. When the chill and darkness are gone and the former heat and radiance are come man will again find his genial inspirations and devout trust in the Infinite. Then prophets will appear with messages from the Highest; poets will again chant the sacred meanings of existence; saints and heroes who find the reason of life and its happiness in doing the will of God will appear; a new era in the spiritual career of mankind will dawn.
Meanwhile, in all the affairs of life, it is well for each one of us to act upon his highest and holiest conviction. Only thus can we make moral advance; only thus can we rise above the low average of social ethics; only thus can we free ourselves from remorse in that impressive hour when time is behind and eternity is just before us.
To him who refers all his actions to a moral sovereignty, life becomes more and more wonderful. The days come bearing new opportunities. Every morning a new vision, of a world made beautiful by the reign of goodness, is unfolded to his gaze,—a world in which every sublimity and beauty of Nature is fully equaled by the thoughts and actions of man. Through all the many tasks and many mysteries of earth he may move undaunted, well assured that He who holds the destiny of all things in keeping is his unchanging Friend.