Зображення сторінки
PDF
ePub

tioneering agents and old Parliamentary hands. I am far from imputing this to them as a fault. The man whose business it is, as Plato expresses it, "to study the whims and humours of the many-headed multitude," must, speak a language which the multitude can understand. The number of people who are capable of following—to say nothing of judging—a sustained argument is not large. But an apt phrase goes home to the dullest with singular £iersuasiveness. And, in some cases, it becomes a Shibboleth, the faculty of effectively pronouncing which is a key to popular favour. It is easy to gibe at this mode of leading men by the ears. It is more philosophical to remember that as precedents are the application or misapplication of principles, so Shibboleths are the application or misapplication of syllogisms. And it may not be altogether lost labour to examine some of them specially influential at the present time, and to exhibit the truths which they present or distort. Such is the task which I shall essay in the following pages regarding seven Shibboleths which largely dominate contemporary life. And 1 shall begin with one of them which is, in some sort, the parent of the other six. I shall consider in this chapter the Shibboleth of Progress.

Perhaps no word is more common upon the tongues of men. Certainly none is used more

i.] "A COMFORTABLE DOCTRINE." 3

vaguely. If we inquire even of people who pass for educated—take as the type of them an average Member of Parliament—what they mean by it, we evoke the most extraordinary, the most discordant, answers. Unless, indeed,—and this more frequently happens—they are struck dumb by a demand for the unwonted accuracy of thought implied in a definition. But however indeterminately and incongruously the word is used, this much is clear, that it symbolises a conviction deeply rooted in the popular mind of the surpassing excellence of the times in which we live, and of the still more surpassing excellence of the times that shall come after. "A comfortable doctrine and much may be said of it." Much is said. After dinner orators and newspaper philosophers find in it a never failing and ever weleome theme for their rhetoric. Every one who aspires to popular favour must surely believe, or, at all events, loudly profess it. To question the "most high and palmy state" of the nineteenth century, or to hint a doubt that with the twentieth a still ampler day must dawn for the world, is accounted flat blasphemy. I, for my part, have no intention of contravening this first article of the popular creed. I am ready, with Browning, to salute Progress, as

"man's distinctive mark alone:
Not God's and not the beasts: God is, they arc:
Han partly is and partly hopes to be."

But I may be permitted modestly to inquire wherein our Progress really consists, and whether there are any qualifications, reserves, ill omens, which should temper the excess of our jubilation over it, nay, which may reasonably lead us to rejoice with trembling.

And, first, let us endeavour to clear away some of the haze which surrounds the word. I think that those who use it most carefully and conscientiously intend to signify by it the ascent of mankind from bad to good and from good to better: the advance of our race towards perfection: the continuous enhancement of the value of human life. But these are question-begging generalities underlain by the profoundest problems. One such, for example, is: Whether human life has any positive value? The prevailing opinion among those whom I have now specially in view seems to be that life is, in itself, a good: perhaps the chief good. But this proposition is by no means self-evident, nor does it admit of logical proof. While, if, following the fashion of the time, we should submit it to the universal suffrage of mankind, assuredly an overwhelming majority of votes would be given against it. The most prevailing form of religion and philosophy in the world assumes, as an axiom, that existence is in itself evil, nay; the supreme evil. And here Brahmanism is at one with Buddhism, although its hope of deliverance from "this earthly load of death called life" is in absorption into Brahm, i.] QUESTION-BEGGING GENERALITIES. 5

not in Nirvana. In the Western world this fundamentally pessimistic conception of existence is perhaps seldom held with real assent, notwithstanding the fervour wherewith it has been preached of late years. But that buoyant temper which found expression in the optimism dominant a century ago, has ceased to characterize more thoughtful and sensitive minds.

"Wer erfreute sich des Lebcns
Der in seine Tiefen blickt?"

Instead of inciting us to raise paeans over the best of possible worlds, they do but bid us " faintly trust the larger hope."

Then again, the general concept of humanity employed in the current phrases about Progress, is fairly open to severe criticism. How, it is asked, can we speak of "the race" as a real entity, if we consider that with the exception of the infinitesimal fragment now passing through life—"between a sleep and a sleep "—it is made up of the dead and the unborn? Mankind is really the sum of the men of various races existing at any moment: and however closely related these races may be, how is it possible to apply to them, as a homogeneous whole, any formula of Progress? Zoologically considered, the different families of mankind no doubt belong to the same species. But how enormous the intellectual and physical differences between them, whatever the true explanation of those differences may be. Certain it is that what we call the progressive races are a comparatively small minority among the human tribes peopling the globe. To most of the sons of men, the ceaseless, importunate, all absorbing restlessness of European life is mere madness. "So viel Arbeit um ein Leichentuch!" The Indian chieftain did but express the sense of the overwhelming majority of mankind when he said to his white guest, '•' Ah, my brother, thou wilt never know the happiness of both thinking of nothing and doing nothing: this, next to sleep, is the most enchanting of all things. Thus we were before our birth, and thus we shall be after death. Who gave to thy people the constant desire to be better clothed and better fed, and to leave behind them treasures for their children? Are they afraid that wben they themselves have passed away, sun and moon will shine no more, and the rivers and the dews of heaven will be dried up? Like a fountain flowing from the rock they never rest; when they have finished reaping one field they begin to plough another, and, as if the day wero not long enough, I have seen them working by moonlight. What is their life to ours—their life that is as nought to them? Blind that they are, they lose it all! But we live in the present. The past, we say, is something like smoke which the wind disperses; and the future—where is it? Let us then enjoy to-day: by to-morrow it will be far away." *

* Quoted in Lotzo's Microcosmus, Book VII., c. 4. I avail myself of the excellent translation by Miss Constance Jones.

« НазадПродовжити »