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Concerning Births

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

MAN, poet and mystic that he is, in all his literatures has spoken of the new year as a birth. He will persist in projecting the mystery of his own life upon the outside world, and in associating its fortunes with his own. Thus, the year, prosaic enough as a mere annual swing of the planet round the sun, is figured by him as at the beginning an infant of days, passing thence to its youth of spring, its lusty vigour of the summer, its decline in autumn, its old age and death in winter. And in thus associating himself with his world, endowing it with his own fates, man follows a true instinct. For the world, too, is alive with his own life. The last word of the old Hindoo philosophy, " Thou art that," had reality in it. What travellers are we and our world through time and space ! We belong both of us to infinity and eternity. How busy our universe is ! What traffic through its boundaries ! Not only are we spinning round the sun, but the solar motion of which we partake has carried those of us who are fifty years old some two thou-sand millions of miles from the spot where we first saw the light. But let us get to our question of births. The first of all births, the birth of the universe, was the first miracle and the greatest. Science today is puzzling over the absolute contradiction of an endless variety arising out of what, according to its own hypothesis, must at the beginning have been a perfectly homogeneous substance. Here indeed was a begetting before the worlds.

Not less wondrous is the thought of our own birth, our coming to be what we are on this planet. Think of the chain of births by which we hang ! Here are we in the twentieth century, but for the other end of the chain we grope through countless millienniums of dim, warring populations without a history, until we are back at that Pithecanthropus or erect man-ape found in the Pliocene, probably a quarter of a million years old ; and still on to the man-like apes of the Miocene period another half-million years further back ! We safeguard our births to-day with all manner of moralities, but our life's continuity was maintained through vast periods which knew no morality save Nature's. We are here to-day, with all we have and hope for, because these myriad savage generations, without a single failure, amid all the gusty blasts of that early world, kept aloft the torch of life and handed its mystic flame, brightly burning, to their successors.

Birth is the greatest thing in the world. Here is a force for change, for movement, against which no human thought-structure, however venerable, however authoritative, can hold out. A new universe, says Richter, is created every time a child is born. That is a double-sided truth. Our universe comes with us. So far as we are concerned it began when we did. But the truth here is not only one of perception. It is one also of creation. The new-comer never leaves the world as he found it. Here is the power that makes all new. The babe is the oldest, the most authoritative of us all. It brings the latest news of the world's secret. It is to start where we leave off, and we are at its mercy. A hoary theology may have uttered its last word ; have published decrees backed with ecclesiastical thunders and the authority of a thousand years. It breathes the word infallibility. Roma locuta est ; res finita est. In vain. The scheme might answer if the same men lived on for ever. But it is birth that kills these pretensions. There comes into this sphere a fresh mind and soul, a fresh generation of souls, that finds in itself a sense, a perception of things, that nothing of the old system answers to ; these souls have, in fact, brought with them a new atmosphere, through which they read history and the universe in their own manner. And so the infallibilities go, or reconstruct themselves. Birth is thus the pledge of eternal movement, of an endless inner progression. Nothing is more ludicrous, one might say indecent, than the jealousy of the old against the young. Utterly useless are these exclamations of our venerables at the audacity of their successors. It is they, if they only saw it, who are the pre-sumptuous, for their anger is a revolt against the universal order ; it is a proclamation that their worn-out mind, and not that of the Eternal from whom all the generations come, should speak the final word.

Nothing is more mysterious than birth. For ages philosophers have been trying to construct a science and an art of it ; they have speculated on the true eugenic laws and sought to elaborate them into State enactments. Plato's ideal Republic is made to rest for its prosperity on a proper regulation of births. The idea is that as we can so enormously modify and improve animal races by such means, so the true human progress must be along this road. And that there is a vast truth here to be explored and applied is becoming increasingly clear to thoughtful minds. All that relates to birth needs to be investigated with the exactitude of modern science, for it is in this realm, as in no other, that are hid the secrets of human well-being. And yet how baffling are the facts ! We talk of heredity, but how few great fathers have had great sons ! How often, on the contrary, is the son a mocker of the father's character ! Marcus Aurelius is succeeded by a Commodus ; at the dawn of the Middle Ages Clovis in the West and Heraclitus in the East, doughty warriors them-selves, are each followed by a long line of incompetents ; Cromwell is succeeded by the weakling Richard.

On the other hand, the men of supreme vigour and capacity spring from the strangest origins. Justinian was the child of a Slavonian peasant. Luther said of himself, " I am a peasant's son ; my father, grandfather and ancestors were peasants." D'Alembert was an enfant trouvé exposed on a door-step. Indeed, one might go on without end with examples. When we have made all our investigations we are as far as ever from answering the question, " What is the origin of genius ? " To investigate family history here is to bewilder rather than to inform. We find four or five children born of the same father and mother, brought up under the same roof, with the same environment, with the same teaching. The parents are nothing in particular. What was there in Shakespeare's parents, or Bunyan's ? The other children are nothing in particular. Whence, then, has this one of them, who fills the world with his name, derived his gifts ? It would seem as though the heredity here, if there be any at all, were linked to another sphere and system of things, than to a physical and earthly succession.

Assuredly, the question of noble birth is not settled by a reference to Debrett. As Schiller puts it : " The question is not ` art thou in the nobility ? ' but, ` is there nobility in thee ? ' " If it comes to a comparison of social stations, a man of ability and character may, on the whole, congratulate himself if he begins low down. There is so much more to conquer ; so vastly interesting an ascent, and such invaluable lessons and treasures to be picked up on the road. Mr. Carnegie, who knows by experience both poverty and wealth, said recently, after speaking of millionaire's sons, of whom he seems to have a very poor opinion, that " the young man who has poverty for a starting-point, has a vastly better chance of a wholesome and happy life." The " accident of birth," a phrase so often used of our titular aristocracy, is apt to be followed by so many other " accidents " which are not happy ones.

Nature has a wider birth-system than that of the individual. She has her birthdays of nations, of institutions, of religions. It is wonderful to watch here her labour and her bringing forth. The law on this larger field is, we find, the same as with the individual. The newly born takes the material of its system from what it finds already there, but always adds something of its own. When the Western Empire fell finally in 476 under the stroke of Odoacer there was a travail of three turbulent centuries before the new order of the European kingdoms rose to a coherent individuality and life. This new was full of the old, but all transformed and made over again. Imperial Rome had passed away, but in these fresh lusty nations its laws, its language, its institutions found a subtle renewal. Thus does the past eternally partner itself with the future ; thus, through all her mighty schemes, does Nature hint her resurrection secret, whispering in our ear that death is never final.

A strange feature in this larger birth-history is that of the seeming false births that century after century have mocked human hopes. Man has continually imagined his Paradise to be nearer than it was. His eye travels so much farther and faster than his feet. His City of God gleams before him in vision, ready to be entered on at once he grasps his staff for the forward move, to find the splendour vanished. How pathetic, in the light of the world's after-history, those exultant lines of Lucan in his " Pharsalia," in which he predicts the reign of universal peace and brotherly love ' , How fair seemed the prospect for religious liberty, when Henry IV. of France, with Bodin and Pasquier as his literary backers, proclaimed toleration as the only policy for Church and State, and offered the Edict of Nantes as his pledge of sincerity ! What visions of the perfect social State have floated before the eyes of men from Plato to Charles Fourier ! The history since seems so disappointing, and yet these prophets were neither deceivers nor deceived. They were simply before the time. The perfect State, the perfect Church, the perfect brotherhood are not yet. Their gestation is long because their quality is so high. But the world will see them in their time.

There is a yet higher birth than any we have so far spoken of. It is that given us in the words of the Fourth Gospel : " That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit." In his highest realm man finds a birth system, less clearly marked, perhaps, than lower down, but with evidence enough of its reality. The doctrine of the physicist, that life comes only from life, has here also a perfect confirmation. Paul, in that great rencontre on the way to Damascus ; Augustine, hearing the " toile, lege " in the Milan garden ; Wesley, at the Aldersgate meeting in 1738, " finding his heart strangely warmed," with all that followed in their lives, are witnesses, standing amidst countless similar ones, to a fact of the higher psychology, without which human history can never be explained. The " new birth," as these and others have experienced it, is the fruit of an alliance between man and the " something more,". as Professor James puts it, which he finds in his universe. It is the conscious union of the individual with that greater Self which is the spiritual ground of humanity, that " Eternal Word " of whom, as Justin Martyr puts it, " every race of man are partakers." And it is this mystic Divine fellowship, this birth from above, which, in its turn, gives us the assurance of yet another birth in our life story ; when the materials we have gathered in our earthly career, dissolved by death, shall re-emerge to a higher form and a diviner service in the realm beyond.

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