It sometimes happens that a man is confronted by a perplexing crisis, before which he is quite at a loss how to direct his course. His familiar rules and habits seem to fail him, and his perplexity approaches dismay. At such a time, if his previous life has been guided by purpose and consideration, he may perhaps help himself by looking attentively back at the steps by which he has hitherto advanced. He recalls other crises, he sees how they were met, and light, it may be, breaks on the path before him, or at least he takes fresh heart and hope.
Some such crisis confronts the thoughtful mind of the world to-day, in the disappearance of the old sanctions of religion. When the idea of an authoritative revelation of divine truth has been finally dislodged, there are moments when moral chaos seems to impend. We are still upheld by old habits and associations, we are borne along by forces mightier than our creeds or negations, and the loyal spirit catches at moments the |deeper voice across the storm,| even though the voice be inarticulate. But it is felt that we need to somehow define anew the rule of life. By what road shall man attain his supreme desire, -- how can he be good, and how can he be happy?
As the individual seeks help in looking back over his course, so it may help us if we look back a little over some of the significant passages in the movement of mankind. History is to the race what memory is to the individual. One's best treasure is the memory of his happy and heroic hours. The best treasure of humanity is the story of its happy and heroic souls. Let us call before us some of these, and see how they answered the questions we ask.
Following this clew, we run back along the line of what may be called |our spiritual ancestry.| Turning naturally to our own next of kin, a child of New England, going back from the teaching of his youth to his fathers and to their fathers, soon finds before him the Puritan. When we study the Puritan it appears that he was a most composite product, and that just behind him, and essential to the understanding of him, is the great mediaeval church. Studying the church, there is nothing for it but to go back to its foundation, and ponder well the one from whose person and teaching it grew. And to know at all the mind of Jesus we must know something of the mind of Judaism, of which he was the child. Indeed, the popular religion of to-day bases itself directly on the Old and New Testaments; so that our lineage must clearly be traced from this as one of its origins. Another ancient line attracts us, by a history which blends with Judaism at the birth of Christianity, and by a literature which is rich in moral treasures. We must glance at some of the landmarks of the Greek and Roman story.
And here our present study may define its bounds. We will not go back to the progress from the animal up to man, nor survey the prehistoric man; nor will we turn aside to the religions of Egypt, Arabia, and the East; and we can but lightly glance at the early Teutonic people from whom we are descended after the flesh. It will sufficiently serve our purpose if we touch a few salient points among our more direct progenitors in the life of the spirit. And, after all, our richest search will be in the years nearest ourselves.
But no version of history simply as history gives an adequate basis for the higher life. That life must be worked out by each for himself, equipped as he finds himself by inheritance and circumstance, and guided largely by the sure and simple laws of conduct which he drew in with his mother's milk. Study and thought may help a little, and so such essays as the present are offered for whatever they may afford. Of all human studies, history, at its best, -- the knowledge of whatever of worthiest the past of mankind affords, -- such history is of all studies most delightful and inspiring, for it is the contact through books with noble souls -- and the touch of a great soul is a natural sacrament. Such history has significance mainly as its events and characters find parallels in the mind that reads. The soul of to-day, catching from the past the voices of prophets and leaders, thrills with a sense of kinship. The story of American independence means most when the reader has fought his own Bunker Hill, and wintered at Valley Forge, and triumphed at Yorktown. The death of Socrates has small significance unless something in the reader's heart answers to his affirmation that |nothing evil can happen to a good man, in living or dying.| The life of Jesus and the story of Christianity are most fully understood when life's experience has brought the Mount of Vision and the Garden of Gethsemane, the cross and passion, the resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The interest of the present study is in the illustration of certain great spiritual laws. These are laws of which every man may make proof for himself. He may find instances of their working in any close observation of his nearest neighbor, or in reading his newspaper. He may find the clearest exemplification of them in studying the noblest men and women he has known, or, if his life has been worth living, in recalling the most critical and significant passages of his own experience. The reading of these laws is the latest and finest result of the experience of the race. In their substance, they are acknowledged by all good men. No wholly new path to goodness and happiness is likely to be suddenly discovered; certainly no essentially new ideal of what kind of goodness and happiness we are to seek. The saints and heroes are all of one fellowship, though they do not all speak the same language. In a word, there are certain traits of character which all men whose opinion we value now recognize as supremely worthy of cultivation. To seek to know things as they really are; to fit our actions to our best knowledge; to conform in word and act to the truth as we see it; to seek the good of others as well as our own; to be sympathetic and responsive; to be open-eyed to beauty, open-hearted to our fellow creatures; to be reverent and aspiring; to resolutely subject the lower elements of our nature to the higher; to taste frankly and freely the innocent joys of life; to renounce those joys and accept privation, suffering, death, when duty calls, -- such purposes and dispositions as these are unquestionably a true rule of life. The main theme to be illustrated in these pages is that this ideal and rule is in itself an all-sufficient principle. Fidelity to the best we know, and search always for the best, is the natural road to peace and joy, the sure road to victory. It is the key which opens to man the treasury of the universe.
To enforce and vivify this conception, -- this interpretation of the key of life as consisting in fidelity to certain ideals of character, -- we go back to the memorable examples of the past. We use those examples, partly to show how the spiritual laws always worked, the same yesterday, to-day, and forever; and partly to show how as time advanced the laws have been understood with growing clearness, and applied with growing effectiveness. The same stars shone above the sages of Chaldea as shine above us, but our astronomy is better than theirs. The sages of Greece, the prophets of Palestine, the heroes of Rome, the saints of the Middle Ages, the philanthropists and the scientists of to-day, each made their special contribution to the spiritual astronomy. From age to age men have read the heavens and the earth more clearly, and so made of them a more friendly home. Just as, too, there come times of momentous progress in the physical world; the establishment of the Copernican theory, the discovery of a new continent, the mastering of electricity, -- so there are periods of swift advance and discovery in the spiritual life, and such a birth-hour, of travail and of joy, comes in our own day.
In this hasty panorama of the past, then, the effort has been to give real history. But every student knows how transcendent and impossible a thing it is to recall in its entirety and fullness any phase of the past. Even the specialist can but partially open a limited province. So with what confidence can one with no pretensions to original scholarship, however he may use the work of deeper students, express his opinion on any special point in a survey of thirty centuries? If, accordingly, any competent critic shall trouble himself to convict the present writer of error: |This view of Epictetus confuses the earlier and the later Stoics;| or |This account of the Hebrew prophets lacks the latest fruit of research,| -- or, other like defect, -- acknowledgment of such error as quite possible may be freely made in advance. But, in our bird's-eye view of many centuries, any fault of detail will not be so serious as it would be if there were here attempted a chain of proofs, a formal induction, to establish from sure premises a safe conclusion. Only of a subordinate importance is the detail of this history. We say only: in this way, or some way like this, has been the ascent. The contribution of the Stoic was about so and so; the Hebrew prophet helped somewhat thus and thus. But the ultimate, the essential fact we reach in the Ideal of To-day. Here we are on firm ground. The law we acknowledge, the light we follow, -- these may be expressed with entire clearness and confidence. The test they invite is present experiment. Nothing vital shall be staked on far-away history or debatable metaphysics.
In the fivefold division of the book, |Our Spiritual Ancestry| is a bird's-eye view of the main line of advance, which culminates in |The Ideal of To-Day.| A more leisurely retrospect of certain historical passages is given in |A Traveler's Note-Book;| thoughts on the present aspect are grouped under |Glimpses;| and |Daily Bread| introduces a homely and familiar treatment.