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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : DISCOURSE II. MAN AND MACHINERY.

Humanity In The City by E. H. Chapin

DISCOURSE II. MAN AND MACHINERY.

MAN AND MACHINERY.

For the spirit of the living creature was in the
wheels. -- EZEKIEL, i.20.

Whatever may have been the significance of the sublime vision from which I have extracted those words, I do not think that their essential meaning is perverted when I apply them to the subject which comes before us this evening. I am not aware of any sentence that expresses more concisely the relation which I would indicate between Man and Machinery; between those great agents of human achievement and the living intelligence which works in them and by them. And though a Divine Spirit moved in those flashing splendors which burned before the eyes of the prophet, is it not also a divine spirit that mingles in every great manifestation of humanity, and that moves even in the action of man, the worker, toiling among innumerable wheels?

Perhaps if we were called upon to name some one feature of the present age which distinguishes it from all other ages, and endows it with a special wonder and glory, we should call it the Age of Machinery. We trust our age is unfolding something better than material triumphs. The results of past thought and past endeavor are pouring through it in expanding currents of knowledge, liberty, and brotherhood. But the great agents in this diffusion of ideas and principles are those vehicles of iron, and those messengers of lightning, which compress the huge globe into a neighborhood, and bring all its interests within the system of a daily newspaper. Like the generations which have preceded us, we enter into the labors of others, and inherit the fruits of their effort. But these powerful instruments, condensing time and space, endow a single half-century with the possibilities of a cycle. If we take the period comprehending the American and the French revolutions as a dividing line, and look both sides the chasm, we shall discover the difference of a thousand years. Remarkable for brilliant achievements in every department of physics, ours well deserves to be called the Age of Science, also. But it is still more remarkable, for the application of the most majestic and subtle constituents of the universe to the most familiar uses; the wild forces of matter have been caught and harnessed. Go into any factory, and see what fine workmen we have made of the great elements around us. See how magnificent nature has humbled itself, and works in shirt-sleeves. Without food, without sweat, without weariness, it toils all day at the loom, and shouts lustily in the sounding wheels. How diligently the iron fingers pick and sort, and the muscles of steel retain their faithful gripe, and enormous energies run to and fro with an obedient click; while forces that tear the arteries of the earth and heave volcanoes, spin the fabric of an infant's robe, and weave the flowers in a lady's brocade.

I think, then, we may appropriately call it -- The Age of Machinery. It is not a peculiarity of the city, but, rather, seeks room to stretch itself out; and so you may perceive its smoky signals hovering over a thousand vallies, and the echo of its mighty pulses throbbing among the loneliest hills. Nevertheless, it is sufficiently developed here to illustrate the Conditions of Humanity in the City, and this fact, together with the general interest of the subject, is my warrant for taking it up in the present discourse. And my remarks must necessarily be of a general cast, as I have no room for the statistics, and details, and various discussions which grow out of the theme.

And the key-note of all that I shall say, at the present time, is really in the text itself -- |For the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.|

In the first place, these words suggest the relations of Use and Help between Man and Machinery. Upon surveying these numerous and complicated instruments, the thought that most readily occurs, perhaps, is that of the necessity of machinery. The very first step that man takes, out of the condition of infant weakness and animal rudeness, must be accomplished by the aid of some implement. He alone, of all beings upon the face of the earth, is obliged to invent, and is capable of endless invention. The necessity for this springs out, and is a prophecy of, his destiny. The moment he was seen fashioning the first tool, however imperfect, that moment was indicated the difference between himself and the brute, and the control he was destined to gain over the world about him. To fulfil this destiny, he confronts nature with naked hands; and yet, there is the earth to plough, the harvest to reap, the torrent to bridge, the ocean to cross; there are all the results to achieve which constitute the difference between the primitive man, and the civilization of the nineteenth century. The Machine, then -- the agent which links the gratification to the want -- is born of necessity. But we must make a distinction between those instruments which are positively essential, and those, for instance, which merely answer the demands of luxury or indolence.

And this brings up the question of the comparative uses of Machinery -- the foremost place being assigned to those implements which are absolutely indispensable to man's existence upon the earth. But between this absolute degree, and that of frivolous invention, there are countless grades of utility. And the question of usefulness must be decided according to the standard of utility which we apply. If bare subsistence is assumed to be the end of man upon the earth, most of our modern inventions are useless. We can travel without a locomotive, and procure a meal without a cooking-range. The moment we rise above the grossest conception of human existence, the test of usefulness becomes enlarged, and we can make a safe decision upon whatever increases man's comfort, adds to his ability, or inspires his culture. In this way, new things become indispensable. That which was not necessary a priori, is necessary now, in a fresh stage of development, and in connection with circumstances that have sprung up and formed around it. That which was not necessary to man the savage, living on roots and raw fish, is necessary to man the civilized, with new possibilities opening before him, and new faculties unfolded within him. The printing-press was not absolutely necessary to Nimrod, or to Julius Caesar, but is it not absolutely necessary now? Strike it out of existence to-day, and what would be the condition of the world to-morrow? You would have to tear away with it all that has grown up around it, and become assimilated to it -- the textures of the world's growth for three hundred years. Paul moved the old world without a telegraph, and Columbus found a new one without a steamship. But see how essential these agents are to the present condition of civilization. How many derangements among the wheels of business, and the plans of affection, if merely a snow-drift blocks the cars, or a thunder-storm snaps the wires! Our estimate of necessity, and, therefore, of utility, must be formed according to present conditions, and the legitimate demand that rises out of them; these conditions themselves being the necessary developments of society and of the individual.

But some of these, you may say, are the demands of luxury, of indolent ease, of man setting nature to work and lapsing in self-indulgence. To some degree this result may grow out of the present state of things; as some portion of evil will follow in the sweep of an immense good. But what is the precise sentence to be passed upon this prevalent luxury? Of course, admitting the evil -- which is apparent -- I maintain that there is a great deal of good in it; that it is inextricably associated with much real refinement and progress. Men are accustomed to speak of the simplicity and purity of past times, and to compare, with a sigh, the good old era of the stage-coach and the spinning-wheel with these days of whizzing machinery, Aladdin palaces, and California gold. But the core of logic that lies within this rind of sentiment forces a conclusion that I can by no means admit, the conclusion that the world is going backward. I never knew of an epoch that was not thought by some then living to be the worst that ever was, and which did not seem to stand in humiliating contrast with some blessed period gone by. But the golden age of Christianity is in the future, not in the past. Those old ages are like the landscape that shows best in purple distance, all verdant and smooth and bathed in mellow light. But could we go back and touch the reality, we should find many a swamp of disease, and rough and grimy paths of rock and mire. Those were good old times, it may be thought, when baron and peasant feasted together. But the one could not read, and made his mark with a sword-pommel; and the other was not held so dear as a favorite dog. Pure and simple times were those of our grandfathers, -- it may be. Possibly not so pure as we may think, however, and with a simplicity ingrained with some bigotry and a good deal of conceit. The fact is, we are bad enough, imperfect, not because we are growing worse, but because we are yet far from the best. I think, however, with Lord Bacon, that these are |the old times.| The world is older now than it ever was, and it contains the best life and fruition of the past. And this special condition of luxury is a growth out of the past, and is the necessary concomitant of much that is good. Opening new channels for industry, it furnishes occupation for thousands; while, in many of its phases, it indicates a refined culture, and a sphere elevated above the imperative wants of existence. It is no proof of the disadvantages of machinery, therefore, to say that it ministers to something beside absolute bodily need, and delivers man from a slow and exhausting drudgery. So far as it helps us to control nature, and increases the facilities of human intercourse, and diffuses general comfort and elegance, and affords a respite from incessant physical toil, so far it is an agent and a sign of progress.

But, it may be said again, that it is the agent of a selfish and exclusive power, enriching a few and injuring many. And it cannot be denied that grave problems grow out of the relations between Machinery and the laboring classes. Every little while, some new invention is thrust forward, which takes a portion of labor out of the hands of flesh and transfers it to hands of iron. It is not enough to say that mankind in general is benefited by these inanimate agents, which do the work of the world so much more rapidly and powerfully. This may answer as an argument against a monopoly of any one kind of mechanical force. It may be a reason for using cars instead of steamboats, and balloons rather than railroads. The general good must be advanced, whatever the damage to private interests. But the present case brings up the question whether machinery is a general good at all; whether the effect of its introduction into almost every department of labor, will not be felt in the destitution of millions. And, upon this point, I observe, that, like all other great revolutions, the immediate effect may be such as has been suggested. But the final result will be beneficial, and such a result may be traced out even now. For instance, this clogging of old departments of labor will precipitate men upon fresh ones, and upon those that have been too much neglected. It will tend to introduce woman to branches of industry perfectly suited to her, but which have been too exclusively occupied by the other sex, and to turn the attention of robust men to those great fields of productive toil which are as yet but little improved. It may drive them from the dependence, the crowded competition, the unwholesome life of the city, into the broad fields and open air and the sovereignty of the soil. And if this immense intrusion of machinery has only this result, of equalizing the balance against production, we shall have one solution of the problem. And there will be another solution, if this phalanx of mechanism shall lift the mass of men above the occasions of coarse material drudgery into other activities, which doubtless will be thrown open, and shall allow more leisure for spiritual culture. But in this, and all other great questions affecting human welfare, I throw myself back, finally, upon the tokens of Providential Design. The world moves forward, not backward; and the great developments of time are for good, not evil. By machinery, man proceeds with his dominion over nature. He assimilates it to himself; it becomes, so to speak, a part of himself. Every great invention is the enlargement of his own personality. Iron and fire become blood and muscle, and gravitation flows in the current of his will. His pulses beat in the steamship, throbbing through the deep, while the fibres of his heart and brain inclose the earth in an electric network of thought and sympathy. That which was given to help man, will not hinder nor hurt him. |For the spirit of the living creature is in the wheels.|

I observe, in the second place, that the words of the text accord with the testimony which machinery bears to the dignity of man. All these great inventions -- these implements of marvellous skill and power -- prove that the inventor, or the worker, himself is not a machine. I know of nothing which gives me so forcible an impression of the worth and superiority of mind, of its alliance with the Creative Intelligence, as the exhibition of an ingenious piece of mechanism. I have stood with wonder before such a specimen, and seen it work with all the precision of a reflecting creature. Lifting the most tremendous weights, cleaving the most solid masses, performing the nicest tasks, as though a living intellect were in it, informing it and directing its power. I hardly know of any achievement that stands as a higher witness for the human mind. The great poem that bursts in a flood of inspiration upon the soul of genius, and opens the realms of immortal beauty, may lift us to a nobler plane of endeavor. The heroic act of toil or martyrdom for principle, certainly has a loftier, because it is a moral, grandeur. But as an illustration of the creativeness of man's intellect -- of its wondrous capability -- of its alliance with that attribute of the Divine Nature which is evident in the fibres of the grass-blade and the march of the galaxy -- I know of nothing more striking than this piece of mechanism, which is the product of the most profound and patient thought, the harmonizing of antagonistic forces, the combination of the most abstruse details, fitted to the remotest exigencies, and working just as the inventive mind meant it should, and just as it was set a-going, as if that mind were presiding over it, were in it, though it is now far distant, or has vanished from the earth. That mind is immortal! that nature, which is common to all men, transcends any shape of matter and is superior to mechanism. And it may be necessary to say this, necessary to say that man, who is helped by machinery, is separate from it. It is mind that is thus involved with matter. The spirit of a living creature that is in the wheels.

It may be necessary to say this, my friends, and to say it frequently, lest the vast mechanical achievements of our time seduce us into a mere mechanical life. I do not think that the deepest question is, whether machinery will multiply to such an extent as to snatch the bread from the mouths of living men; but whether men, with all the possibilities of their nature, will not become absorbed in that which supplies them with bread alone? I have just expressed my admiration for the genius of the great inventor. Nor can I honor too highly the faithful and industrious mechanic -- the man who fills up his chink in the great economy by patiently using his hammer or his wheel. For, he does something. If he only sews a welt, or planes a knot, he helps build up the solid pyramid of this world's welfare. While there are those who, exhibiting but little use while living, might, if embalmed, serve the same purpose as those forms of ape and ibis inside the Egyptian caverns -- serve to illustrate the shapes and idolatries of human conceit. At any rate, there is no doubt of the essential nobility of that man who pours into life the honest vigor of his toil, over those who compose this feathery foam of fashion that sweeps along Broadway; who consider the insignia of honor to consist in wealth and indolence; and who, ignoring the family history, paint coats of arms to cover up the leather aprons of their grandfathers.

I shall not be misunderstood then, when, making a distinction in behalf of the mechanic by profession, I say that no man should be a mere mechanic in soul. In other words, no man should be bound up in a routine of material ends and uses. He should not be a mechanic, working exclusively in a dead system, but always the architect of a living ideal. And surrounded, astonished, served and enriched as we are by these splendid legions of mechanism, the danger is that material achievement will seem to us the supreme achievement; that all life will become machinery; and the higher interests of being, and the great firmament of immortality, be eclipsed by these flashing wheels. We are in danger of being drawn away from the sanctities of the inner life and the still work of the soul, by this maelstrom of excitement and power. No religious man can help asking, and asking anxiously, whether the spirit of devotion is as deep and fresh, whether spiritual communion with God is as direct and constant, in this whirl and roar, and marvellous achievement, as they were in times bearing less evidently the signs of material progress. For, that which merely gives us a stronger grasp of the world around us, and sends us along the level of nature, is not the most genuine element of progress; but that which elevates our moral plane and enriches the great deep of our spiritual being. The steamship and telegraph are not absolute tokens of this progress, but the moral earnestness and the Christian charity that work through them are; and these must spring up in hearts that are not merely adjusted to the world, but lifted above it -- that are not so occupied by mere machinery as to neglect the living streams of an inward and devout culture.

But, for another reason, -- or as an extension of the same reason, -- we need to realize the truth that man is separate from and superior to machinery. It is because, upon a practical recognition of this truth depends the just action of all who control the interests of labor, and, so to speak, the lives and souls of the laborers. If we should beware of an influence that would render us mere mechanics in our own higher nature, we should likewise remove anything that makes others mere machines, presenting for us no other consideration than the amount of work they can perform for us, and with how little care and cost. I cannot now enter into the great questions that spring up here concerning the relations of capital and labor, and of the employer and the employed. I only observe that these are among the deepest questions of the time: questions which will be heard, which must be discussed, and practically answered. And they who by plans and experiments, however visionary they may seem, however abortive they may prove, are trying to solve this problem, are much wiser in their generation than those who content themselves with cutaneous palliatives and a stolid conservatism. But I maintain now, that back of all these considerations stands this truism, -- that man is not a machine; that the being who toils in the factory, the furnace, the dark mine underground, is one who needs and hopes and suffers and dies, as sinews of iron and fabrics of brass cannot. |The spirit of a living creature is in the wheels.| A cry for justice, for free action, for spiritual opportunity, comes not from the roaring engine or the dizzy loom, but out from the midst of those who are endowed with the sensitiveness and the moral possibilities that belong to humanity, and humanity alone. Set in motion the grandest piece of mechanism ever conceived by human genius, and still there is infinite difference between it and the poorest drudge that bears God's image, -- between it and any human claim.

It must have been a noble spectacle, a few weeks since, to have seen that great ship[A] sail out of port, stretching its proud beak over the sea, and with thundering exultation trampling its sapphire floor. One might have followed its wake with a glistening eye, and said to himself -- |There is the great symbol of human progress, there is the consummation of man's triumph over nature! The long results of ages are condensed in that fabric of strength and beauty. Man has compelled the forest, and ravished the mine, and converted the stream, and chained the fire; and now, with the eye of science and the hand of skill, he rides in this triumphal chariot, making a swift, obedient pathway of the deep!| But when that dark day burst upon them, and nature with one angry sweep transformed that splendid palace into a floating death-chamber; when ocean lifted up this triumph of man's skill, and shook it like a toy; the interest which hung over that awful desolation -- the interest to which your hearts flow out with painful sympathy to-night -- was in nothing that man had achieved, but in humanity itself. All the workmanship, all the material splendor, all the skill, were nothing compared with one heart beating amidst that tempest; compared with one groan that rose from that sea of agony, and then was silent for ever.

[Footnote A: This discourse was delivered just after the tidings of the loss of the San Francisco, in December, 1853.]

And, again, when I consider the conduct of that gallant captain who, day by day, rode by the side of the shuddering wreck, and in slippery peril maintained the royalty of his manhood, and sent a brother's cheer and a brother's help through the storm; when I think of that noble achievement where the Stars and Stripes and the Cross of St. George were lost and blended in the light of universal humanity; I say to myself -- how does an act like this shed light upon a thousand instances of human depravity! What is any material triumph compared to this moral beauty! And what is the great distinction between rags and coronets, between senates and workshops, when in the breast of every man, and everywhere, there is the possibility of such heroism, such charity, and such splendid performance!

And so, my friends, turning from this specific illustration, and looking through the wards of cities, the busy factories, the dim attics and cellars, they all become glorious by the reflected light of the humanity that toils and suffers within them. Man is greater than any achievement of mechanism, any interest of capital, and all the questions which these involve must be brought to the test of his moral capabilities, and his spiritual as well as earthly wants.

But I observe, finally, that the words of the text suggest the Providential design and the Divine agency that are involved in the great mechanical achievements of our age. As the Divine Spirit flowed through those living creatures and moved those wheels, so God's influence is in the movement of humanity, and in the instruments of that movement. We get only a narrow, and often an inexplicable conception of things, until we behold them encircled by this horizon of a Providential design. And if humanity, with all its claims and possibilities, is involved in this network of mechanism, so doubtless are the processes of Infinite Wisdom. Something more than material greatness, or ends limited merely to this earth, is to be wrought out by it. Indications of this appear already. The telegraph and steamship, for instance, serve not only the interests of trade and commerce, but of liberty, and brotherhood, and of Christian influence.

It is beautiful to see how the most selfish agents presently become converted to the broadest uses, and matter is transformed into the vehicle of spirit. For God is in history. It is a Divine dispensation, and has miracles of its own. And, because they come by natural development let us not fail to recognize the benevolence and the significance involved with them. Is not the effect of miracle in the electric wire? The printing-press, is it not the gift of tongues? It is atheistic to suppose that all these wondrous agents have only a narrow and material purpose, and play no part in the highest scheme of the world. Like the prophet by the river Chebar, we may behold them as the symbols in a sublime vision. These wheels within wheels, full of eyes, full of intelligence, and full of human destiny and vast purpose, we know not all their meaning yet. But they have a great meaning. Beneficent intention runs through their swift motions -- voices of promise rise in their multitudinous sounds. A living spirit is in these wheels -- the influence of God; the spirit of man. And, in due time, out of them will evolve the incalculable issues of human welfare and the Divine glory.

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