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The Unseen World and Other Essays Part 15

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We work till we are weary; we carry our work home with us; it haunts our evenings, and disturbs our sleep as well as our digestion. Our minds are so burdened with it that our conversation, when serious, can dwell upon little else. If we step into a railway-car, or the smoking-room of a hotel, or any other place where a dozen or two of men are gathered together, we shall hear them talking of stocks, of investments, of commercial paper, as if there were really nothing in this universe worth thinking of, save only the interchange of dollars and commodities. So constant and unremitted is our forced application, that our minds are dwarfed for everything except the prosecution of the one universal pursuit.

Are we now prepared for the completing of the contrast? Must we say that, as Athens was the most leisurely and the United States is the most hurried community known in history, so the Americans are, as a consequence of their hurry, lacking in thoroughness of culture? Or, since it is difficult to bring our modern culture directly into contrast with that of an ancient community, let me state the case after a different but equivalent fashion. Since the United States present only an exaggerated type of the modern industrial community, since the turmoil of incessant money-getting, which affects all modern communities in large measure, affects us most seriously of all, shall it be said that we are, on the whole, less highly cultivated than our contemporaries in Western Europe? To a certain extent we must confess that this is the case. In the higher culture--in the culture of the whole man, according to the antique idea--we are undoubtedly behind all other nations with which it would be fair to compare ourselves. It will not do to decide a question like this merely by counting literary celebrities, although even thus we should by no means get a verdict in our favour. Since the beginning of this century, England has produced as many great writers and thinkers as France or Germany; yet the general status of culture in England is said--perhaps with truth--to be lower than it is in these countries. It is said that the average Englishman is less ready than the average German or Frenchman to sympathize with ideas which have no obvious market-value. Yet in England there is an amount of high culture among those not professionally scholars, which it would be vain to seek among ourselves. The purposes of my argument, however, require that the comparison should be made between our own country and Western Europe in general. Compare, then, our best magazines--not solely with regard to their intrinsic excellence, but also with regard to the way in which they are sustained--with the Revue des Deux Mondes or the Journal des Debats. Or compare our leading politicians with men like Gladstone, Disraeli, or Sir G. C. Lewis; or even with such men as Brougham or Thiers. Or compare the slovenly style of our newspaper articles, I will not say with the exquisite prose of the lamented Prevost-Paradol, but with the ordinary prose of the French or English newspaper. But a far better illustration--for it goes down to the root of things--is suggested by the recent work of Matthew Arnold on the schools of the continent of Europe. The country of our time where the general culture is unquestionably the highest is Prussia. Now, in Prussia, they are able to have a Minister of Education, who is a member of the Cabinet. They are sure that this minister will not appoint or remove even an assistant professor for political reasons. Only once, as Arnold tells us, has such a thing been done; and then public opinion expressed itself in such an emphatic tone of disapproval that the displaced teacher was instantly appointed to another position. Nothing of this sort, says Arnold, could have occurred in England; but still less could it occur in America. Had we such an educational system, there would presently be an "Education Ring" to control it. Nor can this difference be ascribed to the less eager political activity of Germany.

The Prussian state of things would have been possible in ancient Athens, where political life was as absorbing and nearly as turbulent as in the United States. The difference is due to our lack of faith in culture, a lack of faith in that of which we have not had adequate experience.

We lack culture because we live in a hurry, and because our attention is given up to pursuits which call into activity and develop but one side of us. On the one hand contemplate Sokrates quietly entertaining a crowd in the Athenian market-place, and on the other hand consider Broadway with its eternal clatter, and its throngs of hurrying people elbowing and treading on each other's heels, and you will get a lively notion of the difference between the extreme phases of ancient and modern life. By the time we have thus rushed through our day, we have no strength left to devote to things spiritual. To-day finds us no nearer fruition than yesterday. And if perhaps the time at last arrives when fruition is practicable, our minds have run so long in the ruts that they cannot be twisted out.

As it is impossible for any person living in a given state of society to keep himself exempt from its influences, detrimental as well as beneficial, we find that even those who strive to make a literary occupation subservient to purposes of culture are not, save in rare cases, spared by the general turmoil. Those who have at once the ability, the taste, and the wealth needful for training themselves to the accomplishment of some many-sided and permanent work are of course very few. Nor have our universities yet provided themselves with the means for securing to literary talent the leisure which is essential to complete mental development, or to a high order of productiveness.



Although in most industrial enterprises we know how to work together so successfully, in literature we have as yet no co-operation. We have not only no Paris, but we have not even a Tubingen, a Leipsic, or a Jena, or anything corresponding to the fellowships in the English universities.

Our literary workers have no choice but to fall into the ranks, and make merchandise of their half-formed ideas. They must work without co-operation, they must write in a hurry, and they must write for those who have no leisure for aught but hasty and superficial reading.

Bursting boilers and custom-house frauds may have at first sight nothing to do with each other or with my subject. It is indisputable, however, that the horrible massacres perpetrated every few weeks or mouths by our common carriers, and the disgraceful peculation in which we allow our public servants to indulge with hardly ever an effective word of protest, are alike to be ascribed to the same causes which interfere with our higher culture. It is by no means a mere accidental coincidence that for every dollar stolen by government officials in Prussia, at least fifty or a hundred are stolen in the United States. This does not show that the Germans are our superiors in average honesty, but it shows that they are our superiors in thoroughness. It is with them an imperative demand that any official whatever shall be qualified for his post; a principle of public economy which in our country is not simply ignored in practice, but often openly laughed at. But in a country where high intelligence and thorough training are imperatively demanded, it follows of necessity that these qualifications must insure for their possessors a permanent career in which the temptations to malfeasance or dishonesty are reduced to the minimum. On the other hand, in a country where intelligence and training have no surety that they are to carry the day against stupidity and inefficiency, the incentives to dishonourable conduct are overpowering. The result in our own political life is that the best men are driven in disgust from politics, and thus one of the noblest fields for the culture of the whole man is given over to be worked by swindlers and charlatans. To an Athenian such a severance of the highest culture from political life would have been utterly inconceivable. Obviously the deepest explanation of all this lies in our lack of belief in the necessity for high and thorough training. We do not value culture enough to keep it in our employ or to pay it for its services; and what is this short-sighted negligence but the outcome of the universal shiftlessness begotten of the habit of doing everything in a hurry? On every hand we may see the fruits of this shiftlessness, from buildings that tumble in, switches that are misplaced, furnaces that are ill-protected, fire-brigades that are without discipline, up to unauthorized meddlings with the currency, and revenue laws which defeat their own purpose.

I said above that the attributes of American life which we should find it necessary for our purpose to signalize are simply the attributes of modern life in their most exaggerated phase. Is there not a certain sense in which all modern handiwork is hastily and imperfectly done?

To begin with common household arts, does not every one know that old things are more durable than new things? Our grandfathers wore better shoes than we wear, because there was leisure enough to cure the leather properly. In old times a chair was made of seasoned wood, and its joints carefully fitted; its maker had leisure to see that it was well put together. Now a thousand are turned off at once by machinery, out of green wood, and, with their backs glued on, are hurried off to their evil fate,--destined to drop in pieces if they happen to stand near the fireplace, and liable to collapse under the weight of a heavy man.

Some of us still preserve, as heirlooms, old tables and bedsteads of Cromwellian times: in the twenty-first century what will have become of our machine-made bedsteads and tables?

Perhaps it may seem odd to talk about tanning and joinery in connection with culture, but indeed there is a subtle bond of union holding together all these things. Any phase of life can be understood only by associating with it some different phase. Sokrates himself has taught us how the homely things illustrate the grand things. If we turn to the art of musical composition and inquire into some of the differences between our recent music and that of Handel's time, we shall alight upon the very criticism which Mr. Mill somewhere makes in comparing ancient with modern literature: the substance has improved, but the form has in some respects deteriorated. The modern music expresses the results of a richer and more varied emotional experience, and in wealth of harmonic resources, to say nothing of increased skill in orchestration, it is notably superior to the old music. Along with this advance, however, there is a perceptible falling off in symmetry and completeness of design, and in what I would call spontaneousness of composition. I believe that this is because modern composers, as a rule, do not drudge patiently enough upon counterpoint. They do not get that absolute mastery over technical difficulties of figuration which was the great secret of the incredible facility and spontaneity of composition displayed by Handel and Bach. Among recent musicians Mendelssohn is the most thoroughly disciplined in the elements of counterpoint; and it is this perfect mastery of the technique of his art which has enabled him to outrank Schubert and Schumann, neither of whom would one venture to pronounce inferior to him in native wealth of musical ideas. May we not partly attribute to rudimentary deficiency in counterpoint the irregularity of structure which so often disfigures the works of the great Wagner and the lesser Liszt, and which the more ardent admirers of these composers are inclined to regard as a symptom of progress?

I am told that a similar illustration might be drawn from the modern history of painting; that, however noble the conceptions of the great painters of the present century, there are none who have gained such a complete mastery over the technicalities of drawing and the handling of the brush as was required in the times of Raphael, Titian, and Rubens.

But on this point I can only speak from hearsay, and am quite willing to end here my series of illustrations, fearing that I may already have been wrongly set down as a lavulator temporis acti. Not the idle praising of times gone by, but the getting a lesson from them which may be of use to us, has been my object. And I believe enough has been said to show that the great complexity of modern life, with its multiplicity of demands upon our energy, has got us into a state of chronic hurry, the results of which are everywhere to be seen in the shape of less thorough workmanship and less rounded culture.

For one moment let me stop to note a further source of the relative imperfection of modern culture, which is best illustrated in the case of literature. I allude to the immense, unorganized mass of literature in all departments, representing the accumulated acquisitions of past ages, which must form the basis of our own achievement, but with which our present methods of education seem inadequate to deal properly. Speaking roughly, modern literature may be said to be getting into the state which Roman jurisprudence was in before it was reformed by Justinian.

Philosophic criticism has not yet reached the point at which it may serve as a natural codifier. We must read laboriously and expend a disproportionate amount of time and pains in winnowing the chaff from the wheat. This tends to make us "digs" or literary drudges; but I doubt if the "dig" is a thoroughly developed man. Goethe, with all his boundless knowledge, his universal curiosity, and his admirable capacity for work, was not a "dig." But this matter can only be hinted at: it is too large to be well discussed at the fag end of an essay while other points are pressing for consideration.

A state of chronic hurry not only directly hinders the performance of thorough work, but it has an indirect tendency to blunt the enjoyment of life. Let us consider for a moment one of the psychological consequences entailed by the strain of a too complex and rapid activity. Every one must have observed that in going off for a vacation of two or three weeks, or in getting freed in any way from the ruts of every-day life, time slackens its gait somewhat, and the events which occur are apt a few years later to cover a disproportionately large area in our recollections. This is because the human organism is a natural timepiece in which the ticks are conscious sensations. The greater the number of sensations which occupy the foreground of consciousness during the day, the longer the day seems in the retrospect. But the various groups of sensations which accompany our daily work tend to become automatic from continual repetition, and to sink into the background of consciousness; and in a very complex and busied life the number of sensations or states of consciousness which can struggle up to the front and get attended to, is comparatively small It is thus that the days seem so short when we are busy about every-day matters, and that they get blurred together, and as it were individually annihilated in recollection. When we travel, a comparatively large number of fresh sensations occupy attention, there is a maximum of consciousness, and a distinct image is left to loom up in memory. For the same reason the weeks and years are much longer to the child than to the grown man. The life is simpler and less hurried, so that there is time to attend to a great many sensations. Now this fact lies at the bottom of that keen enjoyment of existence which is the prerogative of childhood and early youth. The day is not rushed through by the automatic discharge of certain psychical functions, but each sensation stays long enough to make itself recognized. Now when once we understand the psychology of this matter, it becomes evident that the same contrast that holds between the child and the man must hold also between the ancient and the modern. The number of elements entering into ancient life were so few relatively, that there must have been far more than there is now of that intense realization of life which we can observe in children and remember of our own childhood. Space permitting, it would be easy to show from Greek literature how intense was this realization of life. But my point will already have been sufficiently apprehended. Already we cannot fail to see how difficult it is to get more than a minimum of conscious fruition out of a too complex and rapid activity.

One other point is worth noticing before we close. How is this turmoil of modern existence impressing itself upon the physical constitutions of modern men and women? When an individual man engages in furious productive activity, his friends warn him that he will break down. Does the collective man of our time need some such friendly warning? Let us first get a hint from what foreigners think of us ultra-modernized Americans. Wandering journalists, of an ethnological turn of mind, who visit these shores, profess to be struck with the slenderness, the apparent lack of toughness, the dyspeptic look, of the American physique. And from such observations it has been seriously argued that the stalwart English race is suffering inevitable degeneracy in this foreign climate. I have even seen it doubted whether a race of men can ever become thoroughly naturalized in a locality to which it is not indigenous. To such vagaries it is a sufficient answer that the English are no more indigenous to England than to America. They are indigenous to Central Asia, and as they have survived the first transplantation, they may be safely counted on to survive the second. A more careful survey will teach us that the slow alteration of physique which is going on in this country is only an exaggeration of that which modern civilization is tending to bring about everywhere. It is caused by the premature and excessive strain upon the mental powers requisite to meet the emergencies of our complex life. The progress of events has thrown the work of sustaining life so largely upon the brain that we are beginning to sacrifice the physical to the intellectual. We are growing spirituelle in appearance at the expense of robustness. Compare any typical Greek face, with its firm muscles, its symmetry of feature, and its serenity of expression, to a typical modern portrait, with its more delicate contour, its exaggerated forehead, its thoughtful, perhaps jaded look. Or consider in what respects the grand faces of the Plantagenet monarchs differ from the refined countenances of the leading English statesmen of to-day. Or again, consider the familiar pictures of the Oxford and Harvard crews which rowed a race on the Thames in 1869, and observe how much less youthful are the faces of the Americans. By contrast they almost look careworn. The summing up of countless such facts is that modern civilization is making us nervous. Our most formidable diseases are of nervous origin. We seem to have got rid of the mediaeval plague and many of its typhoid congeners; but instead we have an increased amount of insanity, methomania, consumption, dyspepsia, and paralysis. In this fact it is plainly written that we are suffering physically from the over-work and over-excitement entailed by excessive hurry.

In view of these various but nearly related points of difference between ancient and modern life as studied in their extreme manifestations, it cannot be denied that while we have gained much, we have also lost a good deal that is valuable, in our progress. We cannot but suspect that we are not in all points more highly favoured than the ancients. And it becomes probable that Athens, at all events, which I have chosen as my example, may have exhibited an adumbration of a state of things which, for the world at large, is still in the future,--still to be remotely hoped for. The rich complexity of modern social achievement is attained at the cost of individual many-sidedness. As Tennyson puts it, "The individual withers and the world is more and more." Yet the individual does not exist for the sake of society, as the positivists would have us believe, but society exists for the sake of the individual. And the test of complete social life is the opportunity which it affords for complete individual life. Tried by this test, our contemporary civilization will appear seriously defective,--excellent only as a preparation for something better.

This is the true light in which to regard it. This incessant turmoil, this rage for accumulation of wealth, this crowding, jostling, and trampling upon one another, cannot be regarded as permanent, or as anything more than the accompaniment of a transitional stage of civilization. There must be a limit to the extent to which the standard of comfortable living can be raised. The industrial organization of society, which is now but beginning, must culminate in a state of things in which the means of expense will exceed the demand for expense, in which the human race will have some surplus capital. The incessant manual labour which the ancients relegated to slaves will in course of time be more and more largely performed by inanimate machinery.

Unskilled labour will for the most part disappear. Skilled labour will consist in the guiding of implements contrived with versatile cunning for the relief of human nerve and muscle. Ultimately there will be no unsettled land to fill, no frontier life, no savage races to be assimilated or extirpated, no extensive migration. Thus life will again become comparatively stationary. The chances for making great fortunes quickly will be diminished, while the facilities for acquiring a competence by steady labour will be increased. When every one is able to reach the normal standard of comfortable living, we must suppose that the exaggerated appetite for wealth and display will gradually disappear. We shall be more easily satisfied, and thus enjoy more leisure. It may be that there will ultimately exist, over the civilized world, conditions as favourable to the complete fruition of life as those which formerly existed within the narrow circuit of Attika; save that the part once played by enslaved human brain and muscle will finally be played by the enslaved forces of insentient nature. Society will at last bear the test of providing for the complete development of its individual members.

So, at least, we may hope; such is the probability which the progress of events, when carefully questioned, sketches out for us. "Need we fear,"

asks Mr. Greg, "that the world would stagnate under such a change?

Need we guard ourselves against the misconstruction of being held to recommend a life of complacent and inglorious inaction? We think not. We would only substitute a nobler for a meaner strife,--a rational for an excessive toil,--an enjoyment that springs from serenity, for one that springs from excitement only..... To each time its own preacher, to each excess its own counteraction. In an age of dissipation, languor, and stagnation, we should join with Mr. Carlyle in preaching the 'Evangel of Work,' and say with him, 'Blessed is the man who has found his work,--let him ask no other blessedness.' In an age of strenuous, frenzied,.... and often utterly irrational and objectless exertion, we join Mr. Mill in preaching the milder and more needed 'Evangel of Leisure.'"

Bearing all these things in mind, we may understand the remark of the supremely cultivated Goethe, when asked who were his masters: Die Griechen, die Griechen, und immer die Griechen. We may appreciate the significance of Mr. Mill's argument in favour of the study of antiquity, that it preserves the tradition of an era of individual completeness.

There is a disposition growing among us to remodel our methods of education in conformity with the temporary requirements of the age in which we live. In this endeavour there is much that is wise and practical; but in so far as it tends to the neglect of antiquity, I cannot think it well-timed. Our education should not only enhance the value of what we possess; is should also supply the consciousness of what we lack. And while, for generations to come, we pass toilfully through an era of exorbitant industrialism, some fragment of our time will not be misspent in keeping alive the tradition of a state of things which was once briefly enjoyed by a little community, but which, in the distant future, will, as it is hoped, become the permanent possession of all mankind.

January, 1873.

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