The Way Of Freedom
( Originally Published 1912 )
Ye shall know the truth and the truth will make you free. —Jesus.
The words truth and free occuring in this famous sentence possess an importance that is almost impossible to overstate. They have been one of the most powerful motives of human progress. To the desire of the mind for truth nearly all the great philosophies and sciences may be traced. Profit, in the various forms of fame or power or wealth, has doubtless often been one of the moving forces in the search; but in many instances the simple desire for truth has completely occupied the heart. In all the centuries human forms have been seen bending over problems; trying to discover the secret locked in flower and rock and star; bravely going into unknown latitudes and enduring untold hardships when all prospect of reward in the concrete was entirely absent.
It may be that many of the expeditions sent out in former centuries to discover new continents were dispatched as much in the name of a mercenary spirit as of a pure desire for discovery. Spain and France and England may have been only animated by the desire of adding a new world to their possessions. But it still remains that many voyages have been made for the one purpose of discovering truth. From Sir John Franklin onward the expeditions to the far North have not been made with the hope of adding new territory to the governments that sent them. Ships have been sent to every quarter of the globe to find out something about the plants and animals and peoples. Years have been spent in sounding the seas merely to ascertain the truth as to the ocean bed and find what forms of life are hidden in its awful depths. Expeditions are fitted out and sent thousands of miles to note all the phenomena of an eclipse or the passing of a star across the face of the sun. No monarchy or republic expects to add anything to its material wealth by these discoveries. There is no expectation of unfurling the flag of possession on the worlds of sun and planet whose facts and laws are studied.
It may be recalled, also, that the search for truth has often been attended with hardship and danger and self-sacrifice. From Socrates to Bruno and Galileo, and from Bruno and Galileo to Darwin and Huxley the path of those who have sought the truth of mind and nature has not been one lined with flowers. For much of the time it has run through a wilderness of thorns. Those following it encountered much more hatred than love. If fame and applause were their aim, while they lived they failed in their object. Whatever fame they received came much too late to give them any pleasure. Their greatness was nearly all post-mortem. The applause was nearly all made over the spot where their dust reposes.
"Many loved Truth and lavished life's best oil
Thus it must be that there is something in the search for truth itself that allures and amply compensates the seeker. Lessing thought the possession of pure truth is for God alone and the impulse to discover it sufficiently rewards and ennobles man.
"Tis not the grapes of Canaan that repay,
However much or little the desire for truth may have impelled the race along its path of progress, there can be no difference of opinion as to the part the passion for freedom has played in the great human drama. It was this that led the slaves out of Egypt and caused the captive daughters of Jerusalem to hang their silent harps on the willows and weep on the banks of the river of Babylon. It inspired the courage at Thermopylæ, dictated terms at Runnymede, launched the Mayflower at Southampton and, at Concord,
"Fired the shot heard round the world."
Even now it is stirring millions of hearts all the way from the Ural Mountains to the Sierra Nevadas and its ultimate triumph seems assured.
The question as to the origin of man is still under discussion. Whether he is the product of an immediate act of creation or of a self acting process of development is unknown. The probabilities are very great that the evolutionists are right in their claim that he gradually emerged from some lower form of life; but their theory has not been sufficiently demonstrated to silence all doubts. Some needed fads are still absent and it may be that they will never be found.
Perhaps the time and manner of the coming, not only of human life, but of all forms of life may always remain concealed in the mysterious past which folds an impenetrable veil over so many things.
But one thing at least is sure:—the beginnings of mankind were attended by much mental and moral weakness. Reason and history join in making this conclusion inevitable. All the remains of primitive man point to a condition of great imperfection. Where he came in contact with the physical world he was very helpless. His implements were rude. His hammer was of stone. He must get fire from a flint. He ground his grain by means of a stone hollowed out in the center and using a smaller rounded stone for a pestle. His home was a cave in winter and a booth made of boughs in summer. His language was rude. A few words that were names of familiar objects supplemented by signs was his only method of communication. There was no literature, no laws, no music. There were bodily organs, but with limited powers. The brain had little power of thought; the heart little power of love; and the ear was not fine enough to distinguish between a discord and a harmony.
But gradually this condition was changed. Each organ enlarged its powers. The elements once holding him prisoner, man has overcome and turned into servants. Humanity was the real Titan. Chained to a rock, his unconquerable passion for freedom made him defy Fate and break his chains asunder. Free, his empire began to enlarge. The borders of earth were its only limits. He was that Atlas who could carry the world on his shoulders; that Hercules who could change the course of rivers and bring away golden treasures from the Hesperides. Every movement was toward greater power and freedom.
Not suddenly and not without great effort did the race acquire physical liberty. It must have taken a long time to form the human hand. Assuming as true the main principles of development, through what amazing transformations it has passed! Once it was rude in form and clumsy in action. Its main function was to grasp a branch to assist in climbing or seize a club or stone to ward off some enemy. Only think of it now! It is a perfect agent of a complex mind. It is strong enough to build a Parthenon. Deft enough to chisel an Apollo. Flexible enough to sweep the strings of a harp and express every emotion of the soul. So exact that, with a free movement, it can draw an almost perfect circle and, in performing a surgical operation, can make a motion only covering the two hundreth part of an inch. All this marks a wonderful advance.
When it is recalled that this refining process is carried forward in the mental and moral realm, the wonder becomes all the greater. The human hand is no farther removed from the claws of some remote creature than is the mind from the instinct which guided the rude organ of that primitive being. The house has become refined as its tenent has become refined. It is the mixing of thought with action that makes the difference between man and the animals. In the classic mythology Hephæstus ministered to the greater deities while others of less note were sent on errands all over the earth. So, in man, the senses are subsidiary and their true office is to minister to their superiors. They are the cupbearers to the soul. The senses in the animal equal those in man, but in the latter they are put to a higher use. The eagle can perhaps see farther than man; but, looking upon an outspread landscape from its mountain crag, it cannot see what man sees. It might see a lamb or a rabbit which it would like to seize and devour, but there is much it does not see. For it the beauty of the scene does not exist. It does not note the river flowing through the valley beneath; the rich coloring of mead-ow and wheatfield; the brown road winding among the farms; and the warm sunlight poured out upon every-thing. It is reminded of nothing great; it is not over-come by any exalted or tender emotion; it does not think of its own origin or destiny; it does not meditate about God. It is free indeed, but it is not as free as man. Its empire is much more limited than his. It can wing a great flight into the upper air, but man can project himself far beyond its greatest flight. He can fly among the stars. The savage has a keener sense of hearing than the being of a higher civilization, but there is a great difference in the sounds they love to hear. To the former there is nothing sweeter than the cry of his tortured enemy. To the latter the moan of a suffering animal brings pain. The savage, free to roam through the woods, has a much smaller empire than the civilized man who is free to roam at will through the boundless realms of science and literature, of art and philosophy, of religion and beauty,—empires which include the past, the present, and the future in their domain.
There is something in mankind capable of possessing and enjoying a world greater than the one apprehended by the senses. The invitation came to him long ago to enter and possess this world. In some way he was apprised that he might ascend. He was free to become greater than his surroundings.
This introduced a thrilling and tragic element into human existence. It was at once seen that there was lack of equation between the wish and the deed. The thing done never quite equaled what ought be done. This lack of correspondence brought regret and a sense of shame. The alluring, but perplexing thing is this:—As the deed approached the wish the wish moved farther forward. How often has something like this occurred in the history of us mortals:
In the morning the doing heart has said: "Yon-der, on the horizon I see where the wishing heart has pitched its white tents and unfurled its brilliant flag. When the sun sets I shall be there. Courage and for-ward." All day long the eager march is kept up.
But, when the evening comes, tents and flag are nowhere to be seen. There are only some ashes showing where the campfire was kindled and some tracks showing in what direction the beautiful fugitive has fled.
Man's liberty has never equaled his dream of liberty. But whatever liberty he has was found when walking in the path pointed out by the Judean Teacher. The path of Truth is the way of Freedom. Knowledge is power. The larger the soul, the greater its Kingdom. Every conquest enlarges the arena of life. Liberty is the triumph of the soul.
There are as many forms of freedom as there are forms of slavery. Physical freedom is superiority to material surroundings. It is escape from bondage to the natural forces. In the Testament story the people were astonished that wind and waves seemed subject to their noble Friend. What would be their surprise could they behold modern man's domination of all natural forces! He can let winds blow and billows rage and make his way in spite of their fury. He has not subdued them, but he has made something stronger than they;—steam engines and steel ships. The old hymn says of God that He
"Yokes the whirlwind to his car
But that is literally what man does. Different reasons have been given why miracles are no longer wrought to set aside the order of nature. Perhaps an additional one can be found in the fact they are no longer needed.
A few years ago a great steamer broke her shaft in mid ocean. A group of evangelists on board thought the ship was saved from sinking as a direct answer to their prayers. But earnest and sincere as they were, their prayers were made much too late for them to claim so much credit for their efficacy. The really efficacious prayer was made long before when ship-builders began to ask for wisdom to enable them to construe ships that would carry multitudes across the Atlantic with greater safety. The answer to the prayer came whem it was discovered that water-tight compartments would add to the security of ocean travel. It is probable that the prayers did no harm; but it is doubtful if they contributed anything of value in saving the steamer. A better test of prayers would be to employ them with the water-tight compartments omitted from the situation.
But man's dominion is not limited to wind and wave. It is almost universal. Gravitation, once dreaded as a kind of demon that was trying to drag all things downward, is now regarded as a beneficent angel. The telegraph has annihilated distance. The world has become a great whispering gallery. No secrets can be kept. Every man is at the end of a wire that connects him with every other man and with all men. He only needs to "ring up central" to know what all the world is doing. The slightest event occuring in Constantinople or Yokohama registers itself on the mind of all mankind. Every man has the whole earth for his empire. More than that, indeed; for Pascal spoke truly when he said that, however great the heavens may be, man surpasses them, because with his thought and imagination he can journey through space. He has no limit to his wanderings. Who knows? Earth and Mars may yet signal to each other in a language that each will understand! How has man thus enlarged his dominion over the world? By learning the truth of the world.
The triumph over the physical world serves as an illustration of all freedom. In a political sense liberty is escape from the tyranny of some personal despot or some unjust law or custom. It is release from external restraint. But unless this release comes to a mind prepared for freedom, it is only a partial benefit. It may be a positive evil. If the mind does not do with its freedom that which it ought to do, it does not deserve freedom. To live in a free country does not always make a man worthy of freedom. Liberty only means that one has the privilege of doing right. The use of freedom makes man glorious; its abuse makes him a criminal. Arnold and Washington lived in the same land at the same time. Under the laws they possessed equal privileges and equal powers. Both were free. The difference between them was in the use of freedom. One used it to become a patriot; the other used it to become a traitor. This may serve as illustration of all life. Well used, freedom is an almost unmeasured blessing; misused, it is an almost unmeasured curse.
A Russian, who is toiling for political liberty in his own land, has recently said that it would be many years before the Russian people would be ready for freedom. There are only a few of the great masses who are able to comprehend its meaning and while in that condition it would bring misfortune to them. There are many thoughtful persons who have reached the conclusion that the policy pursued toward the colored race in this country has not always been marked by wisdom. There was no mistake in setting the black slave free, but too many political rights were suddenly given. Emancipation does not imply knowledge or goodness. It is only permission and opportunity to become learned and moral. Civil rights are only valuable when united with some degree of personal character. Political power ought not to run very far in advance of mental and moral power. This is no more true of our black than of our white population. There would doubtless be great difficulty in rectifying the mistake, but it is evident that some remedy is much needed. Our whole land is suffering because external rights have been conferred in excess of the mental and moral condition of those receiving them. Privileges are in advance of education. We have not always sought freedom by the path of truth.
In the parable of the talents, privileges and faithfulness were related. To him who was most loyal to the highest ideal presented was given the right of ruling ten cities. Increased fidelity was the warrant for an increase of power.
It should be thus in all of actual life. Duty and privilege are related as cause and effect. Liberty is the reward of obedience. The soul is only free to do that which it ought to do.
The dominion of mankind will always be as great as the realm of truth in which it moves. Each mortal should keep constantly in view the enlarging of his own life by enlarging his knowledge of the world and find his fidelity to the moral sentiment. A saint once said: "I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision." Every man should make a similar confession. The truth he sees he should try to realize. This constitutes the reason and the grandeur of life. Thus have come arts and sciences. Thus charters of human rights and declarations of liberty have appeared. Moving along toward the same rose-flushed horizon religions have been overtaken.
The way of the past must be the way of the future. Only when man marches under a flag of freedom and truth can he hope to gain permanent victories. The world needs an army to follow this flag whose numbers would surpass those glittering hosts which once marched across the plains of Persia, whose fervor would outshine the old crusaders on their way to the holy city, and whose high motive would shame those governments which keep millions of men in arms to slay their fellow-mortals. The object of this multitude would be to extend the power of man by the discovery and the application of truth. To this end the heavens would be studied, flowers analyzed, oceans surveyed and sounded, and laws enacted. Some would suppress slavery of the body, others would emancipate the mind. Some would teach temperance, some would plan benevolence; some would banish superstition, some minister to beauty; some would erect altars to friendship, some speak of human duty and some of Divine love.
To seek truth is to seek God. To find God is to find freedom. It is to enter an existence not bounded by earth nor arrested by the grave; a life that will be at home in any of the many mansions in the great city of the sky and will endure, throughout the eternal ages.