The End Of A Great Century
( Originally Published 1912 )
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth endureth forever.—Ecclesiastes.
After two more sunsets we shall enjoy a unique experience. We shall witness the departure of an old and the arrival of a new century. Emerson once wished for a condition in which no experience would be repeated. Having suffered or enjoyed a thing once he wished that we might pass onward to something new. The event which is about to occur in our lives is a partial fulfillment of that wish. No one of us has ever been present at the death of an old or the birth of a new century. Having witnessed it once, it is almost certain we shall never witness such an event a second time. This may make us thoughtful. Memory and hope will both linger over the scene.
Of course the century is a division of time made by man. Nature knows no such period. Man has made it for his own convenience. Nature cares nothing for Archbishop Usher's Chronology of the Jews; nothing for Greek, Olympiads or Roman Kalends; nothing for a Christian Era. Those who will be watching, tomorrow night, for the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century will see in nature no sign of interest in the event. There will be no expression of pain or pleasure.
By man's measurement of time a century is a not-able period. It means much in the history of a generation or a nation. In the eternal process of Nature it is not of great importance. The geological epochs dwarf all such man-made periods. It is assumed that the rocks of the glacial epoch have not lost more than half an inch during the whole range of human history. Slow as this process is, however, there has been time enough to cut channels hundreds of feet in depth. It is probable the Falls of Niagara were once at the shore of Lake Ontario. Gradually the shelving rock has worn away beneath the mighty down-pour of water until the breast of the cataract has moved to its present position. It is estimated that nearly 400,000 years have been consumed in making this comparatively short journey. But this is no measurement of earth's age. The formation of these rocks point to a time when they were not rocks, but sand and mud in the bottom of some primeval sea. Not very long ago it was thought that humanity's reign on the earth only covers a period of 6,000 years. Now it is conceded that 6,000 years is only a very small portion of that reign. Beneath deposits, that have required at least 500,000 years to accumulate, implements have been found bearing marks of human workmanship. Biblical chronology is as inadequate to measure human history as a yard stick is to measure the solar system. Even in the light of Chinese and Babylonian civilization and the exhumed remains of Mycenae our computations of the historic period, must be very inadequate. They are as the ticking of a kitchen clock compared with the swinging back and forth of the pendulum of Nature's great time piece that asks, not seconds, but cycles to pass from extreme to extreme of its great arc. Thus, in nature, the going or coming of a century is of small importance. The event is full of interest to us; but that is because we have never seen it before and our life is so brief that we shall never witness it again. We may picture nature as thus speaking to us mortals:
"O children of the years, you may indeed be interested in this event, because it is so new to you. But I have seen many and shall see many more like it. Generations and centuries may come and go, but I remain. Civilization changes, but I am changeless. My moon-light falls upon you, but it fell upon those who once lived in Baalbek and Babylon, You behold the wind drifting the snow that fell yesterday, but it was my wind that heaped the sand-drifts over those cities by the Nile which glistened in the sunlight be-before the foundations of the pyramids were laid. In a few weeks you will hear the birds singing in your hedges and orchards, but it was my birds whose songs mingled with the plash of fountains in the hanging gardens of Iran. It was my snow that fell on Xenophon's retreating host; my rain that made the vale of Sharon so fruitful; my thunder that startled the Trojan hosts; my dew that distilled on Hermon. You are proud of your nation. Behold I have seen a thousand nations appear and then disappear! Your centuries are only grains of sand slipping noiselessly through my hour-glass."
But much depends upon the view point. Seen at a great distance, Alp and Appenine are not large. Seen very near, a little hill seems almost as great. Thus viewed from eternity or from collective history, a century is very small; viewed from the point of a human generation or a single life it is very large. No one can lee indifferent to it. Its passing brings thought to the mind and reverie to the heart.
Herbert Spencer and others have pointed out the fact that all natural movements appear in rhythmic form. They vary in intensity. They rise and fall in obedience to some hidden law. The wind never blows in a steady current, but in successive impulses. All the sea waves are not of equal height. Each seventh billow surpasses the six which precede it. The volume of water in our great lakes steadily declines for a few years and then gradually returns to its old level. Tyndall says the fall of a cataract is not uniform in its action. At regular intervals the flood swells and then shrinks to its former volume. Heard at a distance the strains of music come with more, then with less clearness. Even the heart beats and the breathing of a sleeping child are variable in their action. The individual mind works in the same way. To-day thought comes in floods and creation is a delight. To-morrow the mind seems empty, and its doors and windows are barred against inspiration.
Similar phenomena appear in history. The course of humanity is never in a straight line. It often resembles the path of a child lost in the woods. The arts rise and fall. There are secular as well as annual winters and summers. There are historic, no less then diurnal nights and days. After a long period of dullness, humanity becomes fully awakened and abounds in activity. The Age of Pericles, the Augustan Age, the Renaissance and the Elizabethan Era are terms describing such fruitful periods. The y show a genial summer time of the race when earth burst forth into a wonderful efflorescence. Repeating the method of the ocean, humanity gathered itself into a greater wave. A great era of painting or architecture or literature or invention or religion shows where the winds of creative inspiration, blowing from some unknown region, reached their greatest velocity where the music from humanity's great orchestra sounded in clearest strains.
It is this rising and falling movement of history that gives a thrilling interest to the going and coming of a century. In some respects the passing era has resembled all those that have preceded it. Its natural phenomena have only been a repetition of those of former centuries. The mean temperature remains the same. The sun-rises and sun-sets have been punctual as they have been since the earth was formed. The planets have followed the paths ordained for them from the beginning. To the astronomers one century is much like all the centuries. The laws of the movements of the planets are regular and constant. They have not varied since man began to observe and study them. Based upon their present action a confident prediction can be made as to what will occur in the future. Seasons will come and go, and night and day will succeed each other, in the future, as in the past. The astronomer can foretell with precision all the eclipses of the sun and moon and all the transits of all the planets that will occur within the next hundred or the next thousand years.
The historian or philanthropist or political economist possesses no such certainty in his field of thought and study. When man is introduced upon the arena the reign of uncertainty begins. We cannot banish the uncertainty by pronouncing the formula: "History repeats itself," because history never does quite repeat itself. The present condition only partially resembles the past. Things are occurring at the close of the century which no one could possibly have foreseen at its beginning. Could any person have foretold a hundred years ago or even ten years ago that, in the last years of the century, our nation would be engaged on the other side of the world in a disgraceful war of subjugation? Civilization cannot be studied like a fixed star. Its forces are not mechanical, but spiritual. Thus every prediction is contingent. A mathematician cannot be surprised with the result of his operations. Not so with the moralist and the student of civilization. They are often victims of the unforeseen. The sudden arrival of the unexpected destroys all their calculations. Chateaubriand said there would "always be a mystery in religion." He might have added, "because there will always be a mystery in life." In the great drama of Humanity a part of the plot is always concealed. The curtain is only rolled up to reveal one act at a time, and, until it is played through, we do not know whether the next act will be comedy or tragedy.
It is the part that man plays, therefore, which gives character to a century. It is this that makes it different from its companions. This makes it common or glorious. The greatness of a year is the reflection of human greatness. That was a great year in which the charter of rights was given to the English people. What a year was that in which a Galileo or a Newton or a Kepler made his discoveries! The year that Columbus first looked upon these west-ern shores stands out in the annals of time like a mountain surrounded by plains. No citizen of this country can forget the years in which the English landed on the banks of the Virginia river and on the Massachusetts rock; nor the year when Independence was declared; nor the year when the slaves were set free. But a great century is only a large group of years that received their greatness from human actions. When man rises he takes the century with him. Beautiful as is the Bay of Salamis or the plain of Marathon, by nature, it is that which man did makes these places famous. Nature is only the frame of the real picture. Thus with all its splendid pageantry of marching seasons bearing banners of green and gold and crimson, falling of snows and rains, conjunctions of planets, showering of meteors, advancing and receding suns, the year is only an opportunity for human action. But a century is composed of many such years. It is a larger arena for large deeds. A century can only be great when the human beings living within it are great.
The century that is so near its close will pass into history as one of the greatest the world has ever known. There are those who think it is the greatest in all the human period. Its greatness is more varied and farther reaching in its effects than any of its conpetitors. There were eras in Greece which cannot be forgotten. There were times when literature, philosophy, sculpture, and architecture almost simultaneously reached a condition of wonderful excellence. But those forms of greatness were con-fined to Greece alone. In that one land alone the age was great. Rome also possessed some notable centuries, but the same centuries passed over other lands with-out making any mark upon them. In the Christian period the thirteenth century was remarkable. It marks the awakening of the human mind after its long slumber in the Middle Ages. It gave birth to great thinkers and poets and artists and statesmen and saints. It was the beginning of modern civilization. But that century was only great for Europe. Asia was not influenced by it and America was not discovered. Of course this and all the other centuries that have been notable have helped make the greatness of the nineteenth century. If the first century had not given Christianity, our century would be less noble. If the fifteenth century had not discovered this continent, the nineteenth century could not have civilized it. Consciously or unconsciously our age is indebted to every other age. The great books we read in youth never go away from us. Their noble sentences stay with us and keep shaping and coloring our lives. Thus the centuries that became great in anything, in the near or far past, are still influencing the present.
Acknowledging this debt our era cannot be charged with vanity or boasting if it claims to be the greatest of all the historic centuries. Alfred Wallace says that in the field of discovery and applied science comparison must be made, not between it and any other one, but between it and all foregoing centuries. In this it surpasses all past time. Prior to the nineteenth century eight scientific principles were discovered. These include modern chemistry in the eighteenth after its beginning and geometry in the fourth century before the beginning of our era. In the nineteenth century twelve scientific principles were discovered. In all previous time there were fifteen discoveries and application of discoveries to practical affairs. In the nineteenth century alone there are twenty-four such discoveries and applications. Here is something as wonderful as that experiment in hydrostatics by which a slender column of water in a glass tube is made to balance the ocean. It is marvelous that, in discovery and invention, one century should seem to out weigh all past time.
Nature's method is cumulative. The avalanche begins when a few square inches of snow hanging on the mountain side are disturbed. Only as it descends it gathers force. Each river begins with a spring hidden in some forest laden hillside. Thus has man's power increased. His knowledge has widened. He has covered the earth with the results of his knowledge and toil. The nineteenth century is an arena for his material triumph.
But this victory is not all. Our century has made moral progress. There never before was such wide spread interest in education. War is less frequent and less horrible than it was a hundred years ago. In the early years of the century politicians frequently settled their personal grievances by resorting to pistols or swords. Burr, Hamilton, Marshall, Dickinson, Jackson and Clay adopted that method of obtaining satisfaction. The better sentiment of these later years would not permit a return to that way of deciding a personal misunderstanding. It looks upon that old "field of honor" as a field of shame. It is this century that abolished slavery in the West Indies and the United States and Serfdom in Russia. It is this century that rationalized religion, filling up the abyss which once lay between intelligence and piety. Civilization has become more general and more refined within this hundred year span. There is nothing that escapes its touch. It has made a purer literature, a nobler science, a diviner religion. Our century has made a wild continent into cultivated fields; covered its plains with railways, its rivers and lakes with steamboats; turned the storm tossed ocean into a band of water between the continents across which floating palaces carry thousands who seek for the treasures of art and science. But it has done much more than this. It has not only multiplied the wealth making power of the world, but it has planted school houses all over the land; it has written many good books; it has increased the number of those who love peace and esteem the true glory of a nation to be, not in the extent of its terrritory or the number of its military conquests, but in its principles of justice and liberty and the high character of its citizens; it has become more tender toward all animal life; it has made childhood more sacred, and has freed woman from much of her old time bondage. Before the century leaves us we may well thank it for all it has done for mankind. It has been a noble step in the stair-way along which the race must pass upward toward its great destiny.
For us the closing days of the century need not be sad, but they may be impressive. Life will go forward in the next century very much as it has in this one. The sun will rise, the stars will gleam, rains and snows will fall, and rivers will seek the ocean. Men and women will love; children will laugh and sing; many will sin and then grieve and repent. Fortunes will be made and lost; reputations will dazzle the public eye; fame and power will be sought; books will be written; pictures painted, and youth will be taught at the end of the next century. But all this will be the work of other hearts and hands than ours.
"Who'll press for gold this crowded street
They all within their graves will sleep
When that time comes the present generation will be happy, not in the wealth or power or reput - tion it acquired on the earth, but in the consciousness that some good came to earth through its efforts. We should not be depressed by the fact that one generation goeth; we should rather be exalted by the fact that a new generation cometh and the earth continues from age to age. The new century should pass. along in a growing splendor. Doubtless its industry will be great; its wealth will be great; its material benefits will be great. But our hope also is that its love of peace may be equal to its love of power its education be universal; its laws just; its literature and drama pure; its religion more divine. May the human intellect, be enlarged; the will made strong; the emotions made holy. May there be many who, having gained wisdom, will add to it a lofty enthusiasm for all forms of right. May the next century possess multitudes of men and women who, fully awakened to the significance of life, will behold the high duties of the present and the prophecies of future splendor.
All who thus live, now or in the near century, cannot mourn the vanishing years. As Alps above Alps, as star beyond star, so, he who will may see that opportunity rises above opportunity forever. He is invited onward. Each advance opens new power for greater advance. He will remain unhurt by the swift flying years. Though the centuries die, he shall live.