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Culture And The Spirit Of The Age

( Originally Published 1891 )

But try, I urge, the trying shall suffice :
The aim, if reached or not, makes great the life.


THE mass of mankind, if we pass the whole race in review, are sunk in gross ignorance ; and even in civilized nations, where education is free, the multitude have but a rude acquaintance with the elements of knowledge. Their ability to read and write hardly serves intellectual and moral ends ; and such learning as they possess seems only to weaken their power to admire and love what is best in life and thought.

If we turn to the more cultivated, whose numbers even in the most enlightened countries are not great, we find but here and there an individual who has anything better than a sort of mechanical cleverness. Students, it has been said, on leaving college, quickly divide into two classes, those who have learned nothing, and those who have forgotten everything. In the professions, the lawyer tends to become an advocate, the physician an empiric, the theologian a dogmatist; and these are but instances of a general falling away from ideals. The student of physical science is subdued to what he works in; the man of letters loses depth and earnestness; and the teacher, whose business it is to rouse and illumine souls, shrivels until he becomes merely a repeater of facts and doctrines in which there is no life, no power to exalt the imagination or to give tone to the intellect. The teacher cannot create talent, and his best work lies in stimulating and directing energy and impulse; but this he seldom strives to do or to make himself capable of doing ; and hence pupils very generally leave school as men quit a prison, with a sense of emancipation, and with a desire to forget both the place and the kind of life there encouraged. A talent is like seed-corn, it bears within itself the power to break the confining walls and to spring upward to light, if only it be sown in proper soil, where the rain and the sunshine fall; but this is a truth which those who make education a business are slow to accept. They repress ; they overawe; they are dictatorial; they prescribe rules and methods for minds which can gain strength and wisdom only by following the bent given by their endowments, and thus the young,

who are most easily discouraged in things which concern their highest gifts, lose heart, turn away from ideals, and abandon the pursuit of excellence. The nobler the mind, the greater the danger of its being wrongly dealt with. We seldom find a man whose thinking has helped to form opinion and to create literature, who, if he care to say what he feels, will not declare that his scholastic training was bad. Milton, Gray, Dryden, Wordsworth, Byron, Cowley, Addison, Gibbon, Locke, Shelley, and Cowper had no love for the schools to which they were sent; Swift and Goldsmith received no college honors ; and Pope, Thomson, Burns, and Shakespeare had little or nothing to do with institutions of learning. A man educates himself; and the best work teachers can do, is to inspire the love of mental exercise and a living faith in the power of labor to develop faculty, and to open worlds of use and delight which are infinite, and which each individual must rediscover for him-self. It is the educator's business to cherish the aspirations of the young, to inspire them with confidence in themselves, and to make them feel and understand that no labor can be too great or too long, if its result be cultivation and enlightenment of mind. For them ideals are real ; their life is as yet wrapped in the bud; and to encourage them to believe that if they are but true to themselves, the flower and the fruit will be fair and health-bringing, is to open for them the fountain of hope and noble endeavor.

What men have done, men can still do. Nay, shall we not rather believe that the best is yet to be done? The peoples whom we call ancient were but rude beginners. We are the true ancients, the inheritors of all the wisdom and all the heroism of the past. We stand in a wider world, and move forward with more conscious purpose along more open ways. Of the past we see but the summits, illumined by the rays of genius and glory. Could we look upon the plains where the multitudes lie in darkness, wearing the triple chain of servitude, ignorance, and want, we should understand how fair and beneficent our own age is. Enthusiasm for the past cannot inspire the best intellectual work. The heart turns to the past; but the mind looks to the future, and is forever untwisting the cords which bind us to the things that pleased a child-like fancy. To grow is to outgrow; and what-ever of the past survives, survives, as the very word implies, because it is still living and applicable here and now. Let not the young believe that the age of the heroic and godlike is gone. Good and the means of good are not harder to reconcile today than they were a hundred or a thousand years ago, and they who have a heart may now, as the best have done in the past, wring even from despair the courage on which victory loves to smile. If we are weak and inferior the fault lies in ourselves, not in the age. We are the age ; and if we but will and work, opportunities are offered us to be-come and to perform whatever may crown and glorify a human soul. The time for doing best things, like eternity, is ever present. Let but the man stand forth, and he will find and do his work.

We are too near our own age to discern its true glory, which shall best appear from the vantage-ground of another century; but surely we can feel that it throbs with life, with immortal yearnings, with ever-growing desire to give to all men higher thoughts and purer loves. Society, the State, the Church, the individual, are striving with conscious purpose to make life moral and intelligent. We have become more humane than men have ever been, and accept more fully the duty and the task of extending the domain of justice, of goodness, and of truth. The aim of our civilization is not merely to instruct the ignorant, but to make ignorance impossible; not merely to feed the hungry, but to do away with famine ; not merely to visit the captive, but to make captivity the means of his regeneration. Already the chains of the slave have been broken, and the earth has become the home of God's free children. Disease has been tracked to its secret hiding-places, and barriers have been built against pestilence and contagion. War has become less frequent and less barbarous; persecution for opinion and belief has become rare; man's inhumanity to woman, which is the deepest stain upon the history of the race, has yielded to the influence of religion and knowledge; and with ever-increasing force the truth is borne in upon those who think and observe, that the fate of the rich and high-placed cannot be separated from that of the poor and lowly. While we earnestly strive to control and repress every kind of moral evil, we feel that society itself is responsible for sin and crime, and that social and political conditions and constitutions must change, until the weak and the heavy-laden are protected from the heartlessness of the strong and fortunate. Not only must those who labor with their hands have larger opportunities than hitherto have ever been given them, but in the whole social life of man there must be more justice, more love, more tenderness, more of the spirit of Christ, than hitherto has ever been found there.

What marvellous, intellectual work are we not doing? What admirable expression of the highest truth do we not find in the best writers of our age! It is not all pure gold ; but whether we take a religious, a moral, or an intellectual point of view, we may not affirm of the literature of any age or country that it is perfect. When man clothes in words what he thinks and loves, what he knows and believes, his work bears the marks of his defects not less than those of his qualities. Nay, if we turn to the Bible itself, how much do we not find there which we either fail to comprehend or are unable to apply! Has not the mind of Christendom been trained and illumined by the literatures of Greece and Rome, which in moral purity, in elevation of sentiment, in breadth and depth of thought, in the knowledge of the laws of Nature, in scientific accuracy, in sympathy and tenderness, are altogether inferior to the best writings of our own day? It is a mistake to suppose that this is a material age in which the love of religion, of poetry, of art, of excellence of whatever kind, is dead. The love of what is best has never at any time Been alive save in the hearts of the chosen few; and in such souls it burns now with as sweet and steady a glow as when Plato spoke, and the blessed Saviour uttered words of divine wisdom. Here and now, in and around us, there is the heavenly presence of budding life, of widening vision, of " new thoughts urgent as the growth of wings." Let us turn the white forehead of hope to the fair time, and deem no labor great by which we shall become less unfit to do the work of God and man.

" Nay, never falter; no great deed is done
By falterers who ask for certainty.
No good is certain but the steadfast mind,
The undivided will to seek the good :
'T is that compels the elements and wrings
A human music from the indifferent air.
The greatest gift the hero leaves his race
Is to have been a hero. Say we fail !
We feed the high tradition of the world
And leave our spirit in our children's breasts."

But to enter upon such a course of life with well-founded hope of success, we must be reverent and devout. The thrill of awe is, as Goethe says, the best thing humanity has. We must understand and feel that the visible is but the shadow of the invisible, that the soul has its roots in God, whose kingdom is within us. We must perceive that what we know, believe, ad-mire, love, and yearn for makes our real life ; that we are worth what we are, and not what we possess and use. We must be lovers of perfection, as the divine Saviour bids us become," Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect." We must be conscious of the immortal spirit which is ourself, and walk in the company of God and of just men made perfect, striving after light and purity and strength, which are of the soul. We must love the in-ward, the true, and the eternal rather than the outward and transitory. We must believe that in very truth we are akin to God, that God is in us, and we in him, and consequently that it is our first duty to follow after perfection, completeness of life, in thought, in love, and in con-duct. As it is good to know, so is it good to be strong, to be patient, to be humble, to be helpful; so is it good to do right, though the deed should be our only reward.

But we are beset by all manner of temptations to turn aside from a high and noble way of living. The line of least resistance for us is the common highway of money-getters and place-winners; and the moment a man gives evidence of ability, the whole world urges him to put it to immediate use. Our public opinion identifies the good with the useful, all else is visionary and unreal. The average man controls us not only in politics, but in religion, in art, and in literature. To turn away from material good in order to gain spiritual and intellectual benefit is held to be evidence of a feeble or perverted understanding. If a man is eloquent, let him become a lawyer, a politician, or a preacher; if he have a talent for science, let him become a physician, a practical chemist, or a civil engineer; if he have skill in writing, let him become a journalist or a contributor to magazines. No one asks himself, What shall I do to gain wisdom, strength, virtue, completeness of life; but the universal question is, How shall I make a living, get money, position, notoriety? In our hearts we should rather have the riches of a Rothschild than the mind of Plato, the imagination of Shakespeare, or the soul of Saint Theresa. We believe the best is outside of us, that the aids to the most desirable kind of life are to be found in material and mechanical things. We talk with pride of our numbers, our institutions, our machines; we love the display and noise of life, are eager to mingle in crowds, to live in great cities, and to listen to exaggerated and declamatory speech. The soberness of wisdom, the humility of religion, the plainness of worth, are unattractive and unrecognized. We rush after material things, like hunters after game; and in the excitement of the chase our pulse grows quick, and our vision confused. We have lost the art of patient work and expectation. We are no more capable of living in our work, of making it the means of our growth and happiness. What we do, must be quickly done, must have immediate results. Our success in solving the political and social problems has spoiled us. When we hear of a man who has been prosperous for years, whom no misfortune has sobered and softened, we expect him to be narrow and supercilious ; and in the same way, a prosperous people are exposed to the danger of becoming self-complacent and superficial. We exaggerate the importance of our own achievements and think that which we have accomplished is the best; whereas the wise hold what they have done in slight esteem, and think only of becoming them-selves nobler and wiser. Instead of boasting of our civilization, because we have industrial and commercial prosperity, wealth and liberty, churches, schools, and newspapers, we ought to ask ourselves whether civilization does not imply something more and higher than this, what kind of soul lives and loves and thinks in this environment? Instead of trying to persuade ourselves that we are the greatest and most enlightened people, would it not be worth while to ask ourselves, in a dispassionate temper, whether our best men and women are the most intellectual, the most interesting, and the most Christian men and women to be found in the world? Do they not lack repose, distinction, a sense for complete and harmonious living? Must we not still look to Europe for our best religious and philosophic thought, our best poetry, painting, music, and architecture? " Let the passion for America," says Emerson, " cast out the passion for Europe." This is desirable, but numbers and wealth will not bring it about. While the best is said and done in Europe, the better sort of Americans will look thither, just as Europe looks to us for corn and cotton, or mechanical appliances. We have done much, and much that it was well to do. We have, as Matthew Arnold says, solved the political and social problems better than any other people, though we ourselves perceive that the solution is by no means final, The conditions of our life are favorable to the many. It is easier for a man to assert himself here, than it is or has ever been elsewhere. A little sense, a little energy, is all that any one needs to make him-self independent and comfortable; and because success of this kind is so easy it threatens to absorb our whole life. They alone seem to be living worthily who are doing practical work, who are developing the natural wealth of the country, starting new enterprises and inventing new machines. The political problems which interest us are financial ; schools are maintained and fostered because they protect and strengthen our institutions; religious beliefs are tolerated and encouraged because they are aids to morality, and morality means sobriety, honesty, industry, which lead to thrift. Then there is an idea that religion is a conservative power, useful as a bulwark against the assaults of anti-social fanatics. Philosophy, poetry, and art are not considered seriously, because they are not seen to bear any clear relation to our institutions and temporal well-being. Opinion rules the wide world over; and in the face of this strong public opinion which lays stress chiefly upon external things, the environment, the machinery of life, and not upon spiritual and intellectual qualities, it is not easy to love knowledge and virtue for themselves, for the strength and beauty they give to the soul, for their power to build up the being which is a man's very self. It is rare that men have faith in what but few believe in; they are gregarious, and need the encouragement that comes of having aims and hopes of which the millions approve.

The predominance of the average man, of which our public opinion is the result, puts other obstacles in the way of culture. It makes us self-complacent, easily satisfied with what we perform. A representative mari will become a lawyer, a soldier, a merchant, a legislator, an author, in turns, as occasion offers, and he has no doubt of his sufficiency ; because average work is all that is expected of any one. To be able to do anything fairly well seems to us a more desirable accomplishment than to be able to do some one thing better than anybody else. But this is a view which only those may take who live in an imperfectly developed society. As men become more cultivated, they more and more want only the best; and the noblest natures feel the desire to do their best, not with their actual power, but with the skill which forty or fifty years of discipline and effort might give them. They are laborious; they are patient; they persevere in one direction; they believe that if they but continue to observe, to think, to read, to compare, and to express in plain words what they know, their power of seeing and of uttering will continue to grow. The charm of increasing faculty in an infinite world sways and controls them. They never know enough; they are never able to say well enough what they know; and so they grow old still learning many things. They work in a spirit wholly different from that of the common man, who if he get through with what he has in hand is satisfied. They have an artist's sense of perfection; and like Virgil would burn the works which if they once escape their own hands, the world will never permit to perish.

It is hard to resist when many invite to utterance; and with us whoever has ability is urged to put himself forward, and consequently to dissipate in crude performances energies which if employed in self-culture might make of him a philosopher, a poet, or a man of science. As it is easier to act than to think, the multitude of course will be only talkers, writers, and per-formers ; but a great and civilized people must have at least a few men who take rank with the profound thinkers and finished scholars of the world. No lover of America can help thinking it undesirable that any one should be able to say of us with truth, what Locke has said, " The Americans are not all born with worse under-standings than the Europeans, though we see none of them have such reaches in the arts and sciences." It is our aim to create the highest civilization; but the highest civilization is favor-able to the highest life, which implies and re-quires more than the possession of material things. Conduct is necessary, knowledge is necessary, beauty is necessary, manners are necessary, and a civilized people must develop life in all these directions, and as far as such a thing is possible, harmoniously. Whoever excels in conduct, or in knowledge, or in a sense for the beautiful, or in manners, helps to raise the standard of living, helps to give worth, dignity, charm, and refinement to life. It is hard to take interest in a people who have no profound thinkers, no great artists, no accomplished scholars, for only such men can lift a people above the provincial spirit, and bring them into conscious relationship with former ages and the wide world. The rule of the people looks to something higher than opportunity for every man to have food and a home; to something more than putting a church, a school, and a newspaper at every man's door. Saints and heroes, philosophers and poets, are a people's glory. They give us nobler loves, higher thoughts, diviner aims. They show us how like a god man may become; and political and social institutions which make saints and heroes, philosophers and poets, impossible, can have but inferior value. And there is some radical wrong where the noblest manhood and womanhood are not appreciated and reverenced. Not to recognize genuine worth is the mark of a superficial and vulgar character. The servile spirit has no conception of the heroic nature ; and they who measure life by material standards, do not perceive the infinite which is in man and which makes him godlike. A few only in any age or nation love the best, follow after ideal aims; but when these few are wanting, all life becomes common-place, and the mil-lions pass from the cradle to the grave and leave no lasting impression upon the world.

The practical turn of mind which finds expression in our commercial and industrial achievements, makes itself felt also in our intellectual activity, and those among us who have knowledge and power of utterance are expected, almost required, to throw themselves into the breakers of controversy, to discuss the hundred political, social, religious, financial, sanitary, and educational problems which are ever waiting to be solved. Let them enter the lists, let them take sides, let them strive to see clear in an atmosphere of smoke and fog ; and not to do this is, in the estimation of the many, to be a dreamer, a dilettante, a thinker to no purpose. But this is precisely what those who seek to cultivate themselves, who seek to learn and communicate the best that is known, ought not to do. They should live in a serene air, in a world of tranquillity and peace, where the soul is not troubled by contention, where the view is not perturbed by passion. They should have leisure, which is the original meaning of school and scholar ; for the mind, like the soul, is refreshed and strengthened by quiet meditation. Its improvement is slow, is imperceptible often ; its training is the result of delicate methods which require patience and perseverance, faith in ideals, and a constant looking to the all-perfect Infinite ; and to throw it into the noise and confusion of the busy excited world of practical affairs is to stunt and warp its growth. We do not hitch a race-horse to the plough, nor should we ask the best intellects to do the common work of which every man is capable. They render the best service, when living in communion with the highest and most cultivated minds of the past and present, they learn and teach the way of looking and thinking, of be-having and doing, which has been followed by the greatest and noblest of the race. Political and social questions are forever changing ; views which commend themselves to-day will in a few years seem absurd ; measures which are thought to be of vital importance will grow to be inapplicable. To talk and write about such things is well, may help to prevent stagnation and corruption in public life; but they exercise altogether a higher office, who live in the presence of what is permanently true and good and beautiful, who believe in ideal aims and ends and prevent the masses from losing sight of what constitutes man's real worth. They do what they alone can do, whereas the practical and the useful may be any one's work. They may not, of course, isolate themselves; on the contrary they must live closer than other men not only to God and Nature, but also to the past and present history of their country and of mankind. They study the movements of the age, but they study them in a philosophic and not in a partisan spirit. They seek to know, not what is popular, but what is right and good ; and they often see clearly where the view of others is uncertain and confused. Encouragements and rewards are not necessary for them, for they are drawn to the knowledge and love of the best by irresistible attractions, and the more they learn and love the more beneficent and joy-giving does their life become. Their aims and ends are in harmony with the highest reason and the highest faith. The world they live in abides ; and if they are neglected or forgotten now, they can wait, for truth and goodness and beauty can never lose their power or their charm.

" The worthiest poets have remained uncrowned
Till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone."

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