The ideas and sentiments which underlie the higher life of our time may be largely traced back to two roots, the one Greek-Roman, the other Hebrew.
Each of these two races had originally a mythology made up partly of the personification and worship of the powers of nature, and partly of the deification of human traits or individual heroes.
The higher mind of the Greeks and Romans, in which the distinctive notes were clear intelligence, love of beauty, and practical force, gradually broke away altogether from the popular mythology, and sought to find in reason an explanation of the universe and a sufficient rule of life.
The Greek-Roman mythology made only an indirect and slight contribution to modern religion. But the ethical philosophy and the higher poetry of the two peoples belong not only to our immediate lineage but to our present possessions.
A humanity common with our own brings us into closest sympathy with certain great personalities of this antique world. Differences of time, race, civilization, are powerless to prevent our intimate friendship and reverence for Homer, Sophocles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Epictetus.
Homer shows the opening of eyes and heart to this whole wonderful world of nature and of man.
Sophocles sees human life in its depth of suffering and height of achievement. He views mingled spectacle with profound reverence, sure that through it all is working some divine power. Goodness is dear to the gods, wickedness is abhorrent to them. But the good man is often unhappy, -- from strange inheritance of curse, or from complication of events which no wisdom can baffle. Yet from the discipline of suffering emerges the noblest character, and over the grave itself play gleams of hope, faint but celestial.
In Socrates, we see the man who having in himself attained a solid and noble goodness, addresses all his powers to finding a clear road by which all men may be led into goodness. He first propounds in clearness the most important question of humanity, -- how shall man by reason and by will become master of life?
Plato takes up the question after him, and follows it with an intellect unequaled in its imaginative flight. Plato lighted the fire which has burned high in the enthusiasts of the spirit, -- the mystics, the dreamers, the idealists.
Aristotle confined himself to the homelier province where demonstration is possible, and laid the foundation of logic and of natural science.
Lucretius resolutely puts away from him the whole pageant of fictitious religion. He scouts its terrors, and scorns to depend on unreal consolation. He addresses himself to the intellectual problem of the universe, and decides that all is ruled by material laws.
In Epictetus man reverts from the problem of the universe to the problem of the soul. The beauty of the Greek world has faded, the stern Roman world has trained its best spirits to live with resolute self-mastery. The mythologic gods are no longer worth talking about for serious men. But here is the great actual business of living, -- it can be met in manly temper, and be made a scene of lofty satisfaction and serene tranquillity.
Epictetus was the consummate expression of that Stoic philosophy in which were blended the clearness of Greek thought and the austerity of the best Roman life. Stoicism reverted from all universe-schemes, spiritual or materialist, to the conduct of human life which Socrates had propounded as the essential theme. The Stoic affirmed that all good and evil reside for man in his own will, and that simply in always choosing the right rather than the wrong he may find supreme satisfaction. Epictetus expresses this in the constant tone of heroism and victory. In the more feminine nature of Marcus Aurelius the same ideas yield a beautiful fidelity along with a habitual sadness.
Stoicism was the noblest attainment of the Greek-Roman world. It was a clear and fearless application of reason to human life, with little attempt to solve the mystery of the universe. It gave an ideal and rule to thoughtful, robust, and masculine natures. It made small provision for the ignorant, the weak, or the feminine. Its watchwords were Reason, Nature, Will.
The distinction of the Hebrew development was that the higher minds took up the popular mythology, elevated and purified it. The Hebrew genius was not intellectual but ethical and emotional. The typical Hebrew guide was not a philosopher but a prophet. Through a development of many centuries the popular religion from polytheistic became monotheistic, and from worshiping the sun and fire came to worship an embodiment of righteousness and of supreme power. An ideal of character grew up -- in close association with religious worship and ceremonial -- in which the central virtues were justice, benevolence, and chastity. The sentiments of the family, the nation, and the church were fused in one. Its outward expression was an elaborate ceremonial. Its heart was a passion which in one direction dashed the little province against the whole power of Rome; in another channel, preserved a people intact and separate through twenty centuries of dispersal and subjection; while, in another aspect, it gave birth to Jesus and to Christianity.
Jesus was one of the great spiritual geniuses of the race, -- so far as we know, the greatest. The highest ideas of Judaism he sublimated, intensified, and expressed in universal forms. Indifferent to the ceremonial of his people, he taught that the essence of religion lay in spirit and in conduct.
The holy and awful Deity was to him a tender Father. The whole duty of man to man was love. Chastity of the body was exalted to purity of the heart. He lived close to the common people; taught, helped, healed them; caressed their children, pitied their outcasts, laid hands on the lepers, and calmed the insane. He brooded on the expectation of some great future which earlier seers had impressed on the popular thought, and saw as in prophetic vision the near approach of the perfect triumph of holiness and love. Overshadowed by danger, his hope and faith menaced as by denying Fate, he rallied from the shock, trusted the unseen Power, and went serenely to a martyr's death.
Jesus had roused a passion of personal devotion among the poor, the ignorant, the true-hearted whom he had taught and called. When he was dead, that devotion flamed out in the assertion, He lives again! We have seen him! He will speedily return! The Jewish belief in a bodily resurrection and a Messianic kingdom gave form to this faith, and unbounded love and imagination gave intensity and vividness. That Jesus was risen from the dead became the cardinal article of the new society which grew up around his grave. His moral precepts, his parables, his acts, his personality, -- the personality of one who was alike the child of God and the friend of sinners, -- these were enshrined in a new mythology. A society, enthusiastic, aggressive; at first divided into factions; then blending in a common creed and rule of life; a loyalty to an invisible leader; a sanguine hope of speedy triumph, cooling into more remote expectation, and in the finer spirits transforming into a present spiritual communion; a growing elaboration of organization, priesthood, ritual, mythology; a diffusion through vast masses of people of the new religion, and a corresponding depreciation of its quality, -- this was the early stage of Christianity. It vanquished and destroyed the Greek-Roman mythology, already half dead. Philosophy strove with it in vain, -- there was no real meeting-ground between the two systems. The final appeal of the Stoic was to reason. The Christian theologians thought they reasoned, but their argumentation was feeble save at one point. But that was the vital point, -- experience. Christianity, in its mixture of ardor, credulity, and morality had somehow a power to give to common men and women a nobility and gladness of living which Stoicism could not inspire in them. So it was the worthier of the two antagonists that triumphed in the strife.
Ideally, there ought to have been no strife. Christianity and ethical philosophy ought to have worked side by side, until the religion of Reason and the religion of Love understood each other and blended in one. Destined they were to blend, but not for thousands of years. The new religion brooked no rivalry and no rebellion. It swayed the world despotically, but the beginning and secret of its power was that it had captured the world's heart. Its best watchwords were Faith, Hope, Love.
In a word, civilized mankind, having outgrown the earlier nature-worship, and having found the philosophic reason inadequate to provide a satisfying way of life, accepted a new mythology, because it was inspired by ideas which were powerful to guide, to inspire, and to console. For many centuries we shall look in vain for any serious study of human life except in conformity to the Christian mythology.
The Roman world was submerged by the invasion of the northern tribes. There was a violent collision of peoples, manners, sentiments, usages; a subversion of the luxurious, intelligent, refined, and effete civilization; a rough infusion of barbaric vigor and barbaric ignorance. The marvelous conflict, commingling, and emergence of a thousand years, through which the classic society was replaced by the mediaeval society, cannot even be summarized in these brief paragraphs. The point on which our theme requires attention is that the religion of this period had its form and substance in the Catholic church; and of this church the twin aspects were an authoritative government administered by popes, councils, bishops, and priests, and a conception of the supernatural world equally definite and authoritative, which dominated the intellects and imaginations of man with its Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. The visible church and the invisible world of which the church held the interpretation and the key, -- this concrete fact, and this faith the counterpart of the fact, were the bases and pillars of the religion of Europe for many centuries.
We are not required to balance the merits and faults of this mediaeval religion. It was a mighty power, so long as it commanded the unquestioning intellectual assent of the world, and so long as upon the whole it exemplified and enforced, beyond any other human agency, the highest moral and spiritual ideals men knew.
Its supremacy was favored by the complete subordination of all intellectual life which was an incident of the barbaric conquest and the feudal society which followed. Even before those events the human intellect seemed to flag. The old classicism and the new Christianity never so wedded as to produce either an adequate civic virtue or a great intellectual movement. In the Dark Ages which followed, learning shrank into the narrow channels of the cloister, and literature almost ceased as a creative force. For almost a thousand years -- from Augustine to Dante -- Europe scarcely produced a book which has high intrinsic value for our time. When intellectual energy woke again in Italy and then in the North, the ecclesiastical conception had inwrought itself in human thought.
Along with authority and dogmas there developed an elaborate ceremonial, appealing through the senses to the imagination and the spiritual sense. For the multitude it involved a habitual confusion of the symbol with the substance of religion. In an age when the highest minds lived in an atmosphere of profound ignorance, and philosophy was childish, there was wrought out the full doctrine of the Mass and its accompaniments, -- a literal transformation of the bread and wine of the sacrament into the body and blood of Christ, powerful to impart a saving grace. The power to work this miracle was the supreme weapon of the priesthood.
We may glance at the mediaeval religion in its culmination in the three figures of Dante, Francis of Assisi, and Thomas a Kempis. A Kempis shows religion fled from the active world with its strifes and temptations, sedulously cultivating a pure, devout, unworldly virtue; feeding on the contemplation of heavenly splendors and infernal horrors; self-centred and inglorious. The opposite type is Frances, a joyful prophet of glad tidings to the poor; ardent, sympathetic, heroic; touched with the beauty of nature and the appeal of the animal creation; exalting simplicity and poverty like an ancient philosopher; seeking the needy and sorrowful like Jesus of Nazareth; but with no spiritual originality like Jesus, no power to create a new religion; strong only to revive the best elements of the traditional faith, and to organize a society which erelong sank back to the general level of the church.
Dante is an embodiment of mediaeval belief in its most sublime and intense phase. He has much of the temper of the Hebrew psalmist, in his tremendous love and hate, his patriotism, his sorrow, his quest for the highest. This vast spiritual passion finds its expression and satisfaction in an invisible world, which promises in a future existence the supreme triumph and reign of a divine justice, wrath, and pity, and for which the visible world is but antechamber and probation. Dante shows the culmination of supernatural Christianity, but he has something further. The guide of his pilgrimage, the star of his hope, the inspiration of his life, is a woman, -- loved with sublimation and tenderness, loved better after her death, and felt as the living link between the seen and unseen worlds. Thus at the heart of the old supernaturalism is the germ of a new conception, in which human love sanctified by death becomes the revealer.
In Dante we feel that the projection of human interest to an unseen and future world has reached its furthest limit. The mind of man must needs revert to some nearer home and sphere. And closely following Dante we see in England a group of figures who betoken the return. There is Chaucer, displaying the various energy and joy and humor of earthly life. There is Piers Plowman, showing the grim obverse of the medal, the hardship and woe of the poor. Wyclif insists on a personal religion, whose austere edge turns against ecclesiastical pretense and social wrong; and he applies reason so daringly that it cuts at the very centre of the church's dogma, in denying Transubstantiation. A little earlier we see Roger Bacon making a fresh beginning in the experimental philosophy which had been slighted for centuries. These four are the precursors respectively of the purely human view, as in Shakspere, of the elevation of the poor, of Protestantism, and of natural science.
As pagan mythology, Stoicism, and Judaism all were superseded by early Christianity, as that in turn was succeeded by mediaeval Catholicism, so another stage has brought us to the religion of to-day. The leading features of this last transition may be summarily sketched, we may then glance at certain groups of figures illustrating the advance in its successive periods, and so we shall come to the ideal of the present.
The religious transition of the last four centuries is in one aspect marked by the waning of authority and the growth of individual freedom; and in another aspect it is the substitution for a supernatural of a natural conception, or, we may say, in place of a divided and warring universe, a harmonious universe.
In this double progress toward individual liberty and toward a new way of thought, a conspicuous agency has been the advance of knowledge. Connected with the advance of knowledge has been an improvement of the actual conditions of human life. Meantime the ethical sense and the spiritual aspiration of mankind have asserted themselves, sometimes as slow-working, permanent forces, sometimes in revolutionary upheaval. With change both of material condition and of ways of thought, new forms of sentiment and aspiration have appeared, -- a wider and tenderer humanity; a reverence for the order of nature and dependence upon the study of that order for human progress; a consciousness of the sublimity and beauty of nature as a divine revelation; a reliance upon the powers and intuitions of the human spirit as its only and sufficient guides; a rediscovery under natural and universal forms of the faith and hope which were once supposed inseparably bound up with ritual, dogma, and miracle, but which now when given freer wing find firmer support and loftier scope.
Along with these forces has gone the steady push of human nature for enjoyment, for ease, for power; the grasp of man for all he can get of whatever seems to him the highest good. There have been mutual injuries, degradations, retrogressions, such as darken all the pages of human history; the manifest evil which often defies all interpretation, and which only a profound faith can regard as |good in the making.|
Together with these influences we must also reckon the special action of strong personalities.
No sharp line can be drawn between these various powers, -- their interplay is constant. The main argument of the drama, from the mediaeval to the present phase, may be briefly shown.
Into the world as Dante knew it came Knowledge on three great lines, -- opening the material universe, rediscovering a lost interpretation of life, and diffusing the secrets of the few among the many. The astronomers, voyagers, and geographers found out a new heaven and a new earth. The revival of Greek literature gave to the cultivated class a |renaissance,| a rebirth, of speculative thought, of intellectual beauty, of delight in human activities for their own sake. It was a new birth in some of the old pagan sensuality, skeptical of heaven or hell; worse than the old sensuality because it trampled down the finer purity which Christianity had bred. In others it was a new birth to the pursuit of moral and social good, inspired by the master spirits of Judaism and early Christianity. Then came the invention of printing, and the aristocracy of intelligence widened rapidly toward democracy.
The foremost men of the new knowledge supported the Catholic church, either as a covert for indulgence or as a spiritual agency to be maintained and purified. The successful rebel against the church was a peasant-priest, who revolted because the moral unsoundness which long had sapped the hierarchy ran at last into open countenance of vice. It was originally a moral revolt, and it was led by a man who knew in his own experience that not only the ethical but the emotional life of the spirit was possible without dependence on the church of Rome. But neither Luther nor any of the reformers were men of spiritual originality. Driven to construct a new creed, they simply worked over the old dogmas, divesting them of the keys of priestly power -- the Mass, the confessional, absolution, Purgatory, and the like; and giving infallible authority to the Bible only. A war of creeds followed, mingled with a strife of ambitions and a struggle between the powers of the secular state and of the hierarchy. To men of piety and peace like Erasmus and Melanchthon it seemed as if religion were only a loser by the long period of bloodshed and bitterness that followed. The gain, as we see it, was that half of Europe was wrested from the dominion of the Catholic church; that that church was driven to purify its morals; and that in the Protestant states the liberty which at first was only a change of masters spread gradually, as one sect after another established its foothold, and as the secular temper in the state rose above the ecclesiastical, until the religious freedom of the individual is at last becoming generally and securely established.
Only by this overthrow of ecclesiastical authority was rendered possible that unchecked freedom of intellectual inquiry which has been the great positive factor in modern advance. Step by step men have learned to know the condition, the history, the natural laws of the material world in which they live and the social world of which they are a part. The bearing of this growing knowledge on the conception of the spiritual life has been various, -- seeming for a while to lie wholly apart from it; then at times menacing its existence or contracting its scope; again arming it with powerful weapons and enlarging its ideals. Of the latest chapters in the story of science, one has retold the origin of Christianity, divested it of miracle and revelation, and translated it into purely natural and human terms. Another chapter has fixed the general trend of the universe known to man as an ever advancing and broadening movement, under the name of Evolution.
Amid all these changes the Christian church has continued to present its ideals, precepts, incitements; partly affirming them in contradiction of all denial, partly adapting them to the changes of time and thought. The moral and spiritual interpretation of life has not been confined to the church, but has been voiced in each generation by poets, moralists, reformers, statesmen, each after his thought. Out of the conflict and confusion a substantial agreement and harmonious ideal is at last appearing. More clearly and confidently in our day than ever before the universe may be seen and felt by man as a Cosmos, -- a beautiful order.
This bird's-eye view will grow more distinct and vivid if we study certain typical figures which group themselves as the representatives of succeeding generations. Our conventional division of centuries will serve as a convenient framework for four groups.
In the sixteenth century we have Sir Thomas More, uniting the highest virtue of the church with the clearest intelligence of the new thought, and setting forth in Utopia the ideal to be sought, -- not mere individual salvation, not an ecclesiastical fold, but a human commonwealth of free, happy, and virtuous citizens.
Instead of the peaceful growth of such a society, -- made impossible by selfishness, ignorance, and passion, -- comes social upheaval and religious revolution, its central figure the burly, heroic, great-hearted Luther; by turns a rebel and a conservative; leading the successful revolt of Teutonic Europe against Rome, but leaving reconstruction to other hands.
Then we have Calvin, the builder of the creed of Protestantism; in its substance little but a symmetrical statement of mediaeval ideas, but resting its appeal not on authority, but logic; or, more exactly, on the authority of a book, which, having no longer an infallible interpreter, must be judged by human reason as to its contents and at last as to its nature and origin. Thus, unconsciously, Calvin initiated a religious democracy and ultimately a religion of reason; while for the time he established a creed more austere and grim than the Catholic. Opposite him stands Loyola, the reviver of Catholicism, infusing it with a new heroism and self-sacrifice; reaffirming and intensifying its authority; scornful of speculation, powerful in organization; zealot, missionary, educator; giving to ecclesiastical obedience an added emphasis, to organization a new force.
For a typical group in the next century, let us take Francis Bacon, leading the human intellect away from abstractions and from other worlds to the close, intelligent study of the material world in which men live. Beside him stands Shakspere, reading the world of humanity with eyes neither biased by creed nor sublimed by faith; portraying with marvelous range the joys, sorrows, humors of mankind; showing on his impartial canvas a true humanity, far different from the fictitious saint and fictitious sinner of the theologian; showing, as with the truth of nature, |virtue in her shape how lovely;| but with no consolation beside the grave, no satisfying ideal for man's pursuit nor rule for man's guidance. Near him we see |the Shakspere of divines,| Jeremy Taylor; he, too, is close to the realities of life, but he is planted firm on the belief in a supernatural revelation of God, Christ, and a hereafter, and for those who so believe offers a simple, noble way of |Holy Living and Dying.|
In Cromwell is embodied the attempt of extreme Protestantism to mould society and the state by the authority of a supernatural religion. The Puritan creed for which he stands is a mixture of Hebraic and Calvinistic elements; the Puritan temper is at its best heroic and austere, made despotic by its confidence of divine authority, and by its supernaturalism made indifferent to the new science and to the various elements of human nature on which statesmanship must build. Its political sway is brief, its effects on English and American character are lasting.
In the next century the master minds stand outside of Christianity. Voltaire assails the whole ecclesiastical and supernatural fabric with terrible weapons of hard sense and derision. For the target of his arrows he has a church at once corrupt, tyrannical, and weak, and a creed which the best intelligence has outgrown. He heartily scouts the church, dogma, miracle; admits a vague Deity and a possible hereafter, but cares little for them; is fearless, jovial, generous, -- a rollicking, comfortable, formidable apostle of negations.
Into the vacuum he creates comes Rousseau, and at his touch there well up again deep fountains of feeling, belief, desire. Rousseau, too, has left behind him the church and its dogmas; but he craves love, joy, action, and finds scope for them. He delights in nature's beauty, and it is the symbol to him of a God in whom there remains of the Christian Deity only the element of beneficence. He exhorts men to return to nature, but it is a somewhat unreal nature, a dream of primeval innocence and simplicity. He idealizes the family relation, and brings wisdom and gentleness to the training of the child. He lacks the Hebraic and Puritan stress on conscience; the mild benevolence of his Deity is somewhat remote from the ethical need of man and from the actual procedure or the universe; Rousseau himself is tainted with sensuality, -- a diseased, suffering, pathetic nature, with |sweet strings jangled,| worthy of pity and of gratitude.
In France, the highest intelligence was at war with established institutions, -- the Encyclopaedists, Voltaire, Rousseau, against the Catholic church and the reigning authorities: on the one side persecution, but growing feeble; on the other side derision or evasion or attack. In England, a large measure of civil and religious freedom gave the intellectual combatants a fairer field and a milder temper. The English genius showed itself as practical, matter-of-fact, and moderate. Supernatural Christianity was attacked and defended; against the assault on the miracles the defense was really a shifting of the ground, and an insistence as by Butler on an ethical order in the observed workings of the world, which gives a sort of analogue and support to the Christian scheme of future retribution. In speculative thought the prevailing school, as in Locke, approached reality from the side of sense-knowledge, till Hume showed how this road led to a denial of miracle and in philosophy to a fundamental skepticism. Berkeley reverted to the ideal philosophy, and there seemed but a continuance of the eternal seesaw of metaphysics.
In Germany, Kant sank his plummet deeper. He found indeed in the working of the pure intellect an outcome of self-contradiction. But he recognized, as the most certain guide to reality which man's inner world affords, the commanding sense of duty, -- the |moral imperative;| and through this he found the presence and the authoritative voice of a moral deity.
Goethe lived through a rich and various experience, of book-culture, emotion, conversance with men and affairs, in the attitude of an explorer and observer, unbound by creeds, but open to all teaching from past records or present impressions. The projection of this experience was an ideal of life which gave large scope to all human faculties, -- to knowledge, pleasure, passion, service, -- under a wise self-control, and with theoretical allegiance to a moral law and a future hope not unlike the law and the hope of Christianity. It was an ideal which appealed only to the man of intellectual habit, and which lacked the note of heroism and self-sacrifice.
It was the opposite quality, the passion of self-forgetful service, which won for Christianity its most notable triumph in this century, in the movement led by John Wesley. In Wesley, Protestantism came back to the rescue of the poor, as Catholicism came back in Francis of Assisi. Among the peasants and colliers of England, among the backwoodsmen of America, swept an uplifting wave of love, joy, and hope.
Jonathan Edwards did Christianity the service of carrying Calvinism to its logical extreme, and showing what it really meant. He started in the New England ministry a strenuous speculation, which was not to rest till it destroyed the foundation from which he worked. The hell as to which comfortable churchmen were getting silent, he painted in such lurid colors that reaction and ultimate revolt were necessities of human nature. The life of holiness and love -- in himself a most genuine reality -- he defined in such terms of introspection and self-consciousness, that there opened a wide gulf between the forms of religion and the most sturdy and natural virtue of the time.
That sturdy and natural virtue was embodied in Benjamin Franklin, -- in all this eighteenth century the best type and herald of the coming development of man. Franklin inherited the characteristic virtue of the Englishman and the Puritan; he started in ground which Puritan and Quaker had fertilized, and when the fire of the early zeal had cooled; he worked out the problem of life for himself with great independence and entire good sense. After a few vagaries and some wholesome buffeting, he determined that |moral perfection| was the only satisfying aim. But instead of proclaiming his discovery as a gospel, he quietly utilized it for his personal guidance. He had a keen eye for all utility; he carved out his own fortune; he early identified his own happiness with that of the people around him, and served the community with disinterested faithfulness through a long life. That unselfish beneficence, of which Goethe thought a single instance was enough to save his hero from the fiend to whom he had fairly forfeited his selfish soul, was the habit of Franklin's lifetime. He found the ample sanctions and rewards of virtue in the present world, though he held a cheerful hope of something beyond. In the study of this world's laws, he saw, lay the best road to human success. He recognized the homely virtues of industry and thrift, on which the young American society had worked out its real strength, and assigned to them the fundamental place, instead of that mystic and introspective piety which the Calvinist made his corner-stone. He took the lead in penetrating the secrets of nature, and not less in moulding and guiding the infant nation. If his virtue was prudential rather than heroic, his prudence was close to that large wisdom which is a right apprehension of all the facts of life. Only the realm of the poet, the mystic, the ardent lover, lay beyond his ken. He stands side by side with the grand and magnanimous figure of Washington, -- the twin founders of the American republic.
The complexity and onrush of the nineteenth century may be in some degree made clear if we fix our eyes on certain typical groups of men whom we may classify under the aspects of Knowledge, Philosophy, Literature, Protestantism, Catholicism, Social Ideals, Personal Ideals.
Regarding under Knowledge what may fairly be considered as solid and irreversible acquisition, -- the general movement of humanity has received conspicuous interpretation by Darwin, who by most patient investigation discovered at least approximately the path by which man has been developed out of the lower animal forms. Spencer has shown, by a vast generalization of facts, the working throughout all realms of existence known to man of certain common tendencies -- of variation and new and specialized formation. Apart from all debatable theories of psychology and metaphysics, he and a host of other students in the same direction have discovered clews by which the growth of human societies and their individual members can be in some degree traced under general laws.
In another department of knowledge the sacred histories of Christianity have been given a new reading by scholars, among whom Strauss, Baur, and Renan are conspicuous. The general result has been to show that these scriptures are purely human documents, and the personages they describe are purely human. Through the gospel histories Strauss ran his critical theory like a plowshare through a field of daisies. He showed especially the genesis of many of these stories by imagination working creations out of Old Testament texts. Baur led the way in discovering by marvelous analysis the composite influences which helped to shape the apostolic histories in the interest of party or of piety. Renan reillumined the scene which his predecessors seemed to convert into a dreary waste, by reconceiving, with erudition illumined by genius and sympathy, the personality of Jesus of Nazareth as a human character, nowise infallible, but a sublime leader of the race. While Christianity has thus been brought to the level of a natural religion, its old-time adversaries, the other world-religions such as Buddhism, Brahmanism, Islamism, have been shown by sympathetic students to be vast upward essays of mankind toward truth and goodness. That no religion is handed down complete from heaven, and that all religions are expressions of human aspiration and effort, is coming to be accepted as axiomatic.
Turning from well-established knowledge to theoretical schemes of the universe, the three typical names in this century are Hegel, Comte, and Spencer. Hegel stood for the interpretation of all existence in terms of man's inner world -- thought and being are regarded as identical, and the movement of thought, expressed by a new kind of logic, becomes interpreter of the development of the universe. In absolute revulsion from this tendency, Comte in his world-scheme rejected metaphysics and theology alike as belonging to the infantile stage of man, and recognized as legitimate only the |positive| knowledge which science affords. For the emotional and ethical needs of man, he offered |the religion of humanity,| with the service of mankind as its worship and woman as its priestess. Spencer, equally discarding the supernatural as matter of knowledge, relegates the distinctively religious emotion to awe before a supreme power wholly inscrutable to man. He sets himself to formulate so far as possible the observed workings of the universe in which man is a part; he makes Evolution the central principle; he finds in Heredity and Environment the great formative influences upon the individual; and he reaffirms as of supreme importance the familiar ethical principles which mankind has discovered in its experiences.
In all these forms, the constructive philosophy of our century has visibly fallen short of the immense volume of old and new truths which it has striven to mould and formulate. The characteristic genius of the time is shown more powerfully on the one hand in the accumulation of specific knowledge, as science; and on the other hand in the imaginative portrayal of human life. The favorite vehicle of imagination has been the novel. If our successors hereafter desire to know how man in the nineteenth century appeared to himself, their best guides will be such as Scott, Hawthorne, Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Hugo, Balzac. It is the children of Bacon and those of Shakspere who are most conspicuous in the work of yesterday. To-day we seem to stand on the threshold of a more inclusive, more profound, more inspiring philosophy.
The Christian church has, like all other institutions, been deeply affected by the time-spirit. In Protestantism, the great developments have been a modification of the creed, and a transfer of energy from the winning of a future salvation to the working out of a present salvation for the individual and for society. The creed has been changed, in spirit more widely than in form, partly under the influence of reason and partly through a reawakening of spiritual and humane feeling. Schleiermacher interpreted Christianity as an emotional and ethical experience, rather than a dogmatic system. In the English church, while one refluent wave swept toward a dogmatic authority and ritualistic splendor like that of Rome, on another side the effort to reconcile the church with modern thought and fit it to modern society was carried farther and farther by Coleridge, Arnold, Robertson, Maurice, Kingsley, and Stanley; till the advance has met a sharp check at the point where rejection of miracle involves a collision with the formularies of worship. In America, a like advance has had the advantage of that more elastic polity which allows to churches of the Congregational order an easier change of creed and worship. The leaders have been, in the Unitarian line, such as Channing, who purified Christianity of its Calvinistic harshness and then of its Athanasian metaphysics; and Parker, who took the great step to simple theism, -- Christian in ethics and piety, but purely naturalistic in theology. In the other great branch of the New England church, -- for in New England alone has America shown religious originality, -- Bushnell in a scholastic way, and Beecher with poetic and popular power, resolved the dogmatic system into a supremacy in the universe of love and holiness, embodied in a deity who became actually incarnated as Christ. Phillips Brooks, exercising a spiritual power of extraordinary purity and intensity, and so unspeculative that he felt no difficulty in the formulae of the Episcopal church, taught a religion in which Christ represents a sublimed and perfect humanity, a realized ideal, the inspiration and helper of men who are his brothers.
In the Catholic church, two Popes stand as representative, Plus IX. and Leo XIII. Under the first, the monarchic system of the church was made complete, and the highest function of the Council, the definition of religious truth, was assigned to the Pope. By Leo XIII. this autocracy is administered in sympathy largely with modern ideas. The church allies itself less with the temporal monarch than with the common people. It throws much of its force into ethical channels. Its characteristic interest is in education, temperance, social reform; and along with these it still ministers publicly and privately to that communion with God in which it places the foundation and secret of human life. Its limitations are that it still claims not only to persuade but to rule -- a useful function toward some classes, but impossible toward other classes; that its pretension to infallibility obliges it to misread history; and that its foundation of dogma admits no frank and full reconciliation with modern knowledge.
But to know the full mind and heart of our age, we must again take a survey beyond the church walls. The emotional forces which have moved the world have been largely in the direction of certain social aspirations. The first was for Liberty -- freedom from the tyranny of king's and priests. It won its first great victory in America, where the War of Independence and the making of the Constitution marked by a brave struggle and a masterpiece of good sense the consummation of many years' growth of an English shoot in virgin soil. England herself has followed with more unequal steps to a similar result. In France, there was volcanic explosion which convulsed Europe. The other Continental states have variously followed, save Russia, which as yet lies impotent under despotism. Following the substantial success of the effort for Liberty, or blending with it, came the aspiration for a better Social Order. In one phase, this worked toward the consolidation of nations on natural lines of race and history, as in Germany and Italy. In America, the two ideas of universal Freedom and national Union, conflicting for a while with each other, blent at last and triumphed after a mighty struggle. The supreme figure in that struggle was Abraham Lincoln; who in his public capacity illustrated how the most complicated problems of statesmanship find their best solution through good-will, resolution, patience, and homely shrewdness; while in his own life he showed that a man may rise above misfortune and melancholy, unaided by creed or church, working only by absolute fidelity to the right as he sees the right, till he renders to his fellows a supreme service and wins their unbounded love.
The aspiration for Social Order pauses not when it has won national unity and harmony. The principle and the result of the existing industrial system no longer content those who live under it. That system has been stimulated by the enormous material acquisitions which have flowed from invention. It has improved in some degree the condition of most members of society, but with a marked inequality in the improvement, and at the cost of the mutual hostility which unchecked competition involves, and which is fruitful in moral mischief and material waste. The laborer has gained in intelligence by the school and the newspaper; holding the vote, he feels himself one of the masters of the state; sympathy draws him to his own class. The scholar sees that the system of unchecked competition is an outgrowth of conditions which are changing, and which ought to change. The idealist longs for a society which shall effectually seek the highest good of every member, and supplement the hunger for personal advantage with satisfaction in the good of all. The toiler and the idealist unite to seek a more generous and serviceable order in the community, and the tendency is vaguely called Socialism. One conspicuous exponent is Karl Marx, who, with his followers, would make the highly centralized German state the starting-point for a still more authoritative and minute regulation of the community, directed to the equal material benefit of all its members. By a different road a degree of fraternal organization is being attained, through voluntary associations of workingmen, for mutual support as toward their employers, or for independent production or distribution. All definite and dogmatic schemes of social reform prove upon challenge to need adjustment and modification, to fit the actual workings of a society already infinitely complex. It is as the sentiment which for want of a better word we call socialistic works along with that broad and candid study of fact which we call scientific, and toward an ideal in which the material is but an instrument of the spiritual, -- that there is solid promise of advance.
With these sentiments of Liberty and Social Order may be named what is sometimes called Philanthropy, or in a broader way of speaking may be named Humanity, -- the unselfish passion for the good of others, the ardor of service, to which early Christianity gave outlet in missions, and which now throws itself into reform, education, amelioration in every direction of human need.
More central to man than any social ideal is the personal ideal. For society is but an aggregation of units; state, church, community, family, have their aim and outcome in the individual man; they are serviceable only as through them he becomes good and happy. What new interpretations has this century seen of the personal ideal? They may partly be read in a group of poets of the English-speaking people. Wordsworth, loyal to the forms of the old Christianity, shows life as really sustained and gladdened by simple duty and by the sacramental beauty of nature -- one giving the rule of conduct, the other disclosing the divinity of the world. Tennyson gives in |In Memoriam| that interpretation of human life which comes when love is sublimed by death. Browning shows the soul face to face with the doubt, the denial, the dismay, which are added to the foes of human peace in an age which has lost the old faith, and shows the soul victorious over all by its own energy, constancy, and joy. In Whittier, the dogmatic system of Christianity is transformed into a spirit of fidelity, brotherhood, and tender trust. Emerson gives that direct vision of divine reality, seen in nature, in humanity, in the heart's innermost recesses, which is possible to a soul purified by moral fidelity, reverent of natural law, and winged by holy desire.
These have been the prophets of hope and of victory. The dark message of defeat and despair has also had its full expression. Satiety with material good, disappointment of inward joy, the loss of the old objects of adoration and trust, have inspired utterances in every key of gloom, impotence, despondency verging toward suicide. Schopenhauer has formulated a philosophy of pessimism, and through a host of the minor story-tellers and versifiers runs the note of discouragement and abandonment. The most dangerous alliance which besets man is that between Sensuality and Unbelief, whispering together in his ear, |Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die!| Sometimes unbelief is at the widest remove from sensuality; it may go with pure devotion to truth and thirst for goodness. There are pathetic and noble voices of seekers after God, which when they do not gladden yet strengthen and purify, and which catch at moments an exquisite tone of peace and joy. Such are Clough and Matthew Arnold. We have one moralist of the Spencerian school, George Eliot, who unites a strong ethical sense with a wonderful reading of human nature. Her essential message, told again and again in every book, is, |Life may be ruined by self-indulgence -- beware!| If we ask, |But may life be saved by fidelity?| her answer is uncertain. And in her own life we read, with humbled eyes, the defect which marred the note of triumph and deepened the note of warning.
If, again, as to the Personal Ideal, we revert to the basal elements of character, -- to the homely, every-day aspect, -- to the life not only of the cultivated few but of the mass of humanity, -- the new perception has been reached, that Work is the basis of all personal and social virtue. Toil, said the old Scripture, is God's punishment for man's sin. Toil, says the religious enthusiast, is a necessary incident of an existence whose higher exercise lies in spiritual emotion reaching toward a future Paradise. But toil, to modern eyes, is the root which binds man to his native earth, and transmits all the sap which creates flowers and fruit. Intelligent, arduous, thrifty toil is the mother of greatness. |Do the next thing, -- do the nearest duty, -- labor rather than question,| -- is the most articulate note in Carlyle's stormy message. The old charity was to give bread to the hungry; the new charity is to help the hungry to work for their bread. A generation ago it seemed to American reformers that the nation's problem would be solved if once the slaves were freed. They were set free, and then it was seen that the whole question of their future destiny was still to be met. Practical necessity, religious zeal, political schemes, all played their part; but the best answer came through the apostle Armstrong, |Character, wrought out through education and labor.| The inherited devotion of Christian missionaries caught the light of personal experience and observation, and a man in whom heroic temper blent with shrewdest wisdom laid the foundation of an education transcending in its aims and results the whole traditional system of school and university. It is an object-lesson of supreme significance. That way lies the future education of our children, -- character its aim, nature its chief book, exercise of all the bodily and spiritual powers its method.
Here, then, are the results of our century as they bear on man's higher life. A religion through special revelation has been displaced by a religion which faces all the facts of existence and bases itself on them. Man has found new clews to read the story of his past, and new ways to mould his present and future. The old ethical ideals have been reaffirmed, broadened, purified. The task of building personal life and of ordering society has been set before man in fresh clearness, under heavy penalties for failure and heart-filling rewards for success. It is seen that the humble path of moral obedience issues in celestial heights of spiritual vision. Out of the noblest use of the Here and Now springs the assurance of a Hereafter and the sense of a present eternity. The way to the Highest is open, inviting, commanding. The simplest may enter, and the strongest must give his full strength to the quest.