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History is the record either of human progress, or of the gathering and storing of those forces in whose action the elements of progress are found. For even the periods of reaction and of retrograde are themselves not periods of reaction and retrograde merely. When the wilderness becomes the fruitful field, it is found that the fertility of the one had long been in course of preparation in the other. The soil, worn out by excess of cultivation, allowed to lie fallow for a time, recovers its nutritive functions, and harvests once more wave and smile where there had been only exhaustion and decline. Even those tremendous cataclysms, of which so many signs appear in the physical condition of our globe, were parts of the process by which earth was prepared for man.
To what extent the past of human history has in a like way prepared its present, may for a long time yet invite the study of the thoughtful. That this new age in which we ourselves live, is enriched with potencies inherited from the ages gone by, is in general what every one realizes. That these forces, now so active and efficient, were stored and preserved for us in processes of alternate growth and decay, amidst wars and vast scenes of consequent human suffering, in revolutions and martyrdoms, in national rise and fall, in achievements which were the triumph of noble souls, and in failures and defeats, which were to them harder to bear than death itself—of this, perhaps, we do not so, often think; nor, it may be, is it as yet quite possible for us to fully understand all it imports. At the same time, it is well not to forget “in what a forge and what a heat were shaped the anchors” of human “hope.” It is well to be deeply mindful what a price the Past has paid for that which endows the Present. Nor less of moment is it that, so far as we may, we trace in the Present the auguries of the Future.
The epochs of history, too, are the steps of progress. Each of these epochs we find characterized by some signal event which gathers into itself the results of the periods preceding it, and with these as mighty forces, material, intellectual, moral, spiritual, gives to humanity an impulse that carries it forward in a new stage of development and achievement. Some of these epochs are more marked and signal than others. The advent of Jesus Christ and the introduction of Christianity, was no doubt the greatest of all. Next to it, in point of importance and of permanent and beneficent effect, may be named that which was introductory to what we here are speaking of as the new age. It is the aim of these studies to trace the operation of those forces to which this event either gave birth, or else, renewing them under auspices peculiarly favorable, prepared for them, and for the world through them, a new future. It will be readily seen that the epoch here referred to, is that which is known in history as the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.
There is perhaps no event in the annals of mankind in which the divine purpose and the human conception of the event itself were more out of proportion, the one with the other, than the destruction of the Western Roman empire, with so many monuments of the old civilization, by the inroad of barbarians. One can hardly conceive of anything more awful than such a down-pour of ruthless warriors, finding their chief delight in the fierce joy of battle, before whom the degenerate Italian soldiery melted away like snow before the
sun, who knew no pity for age or sex, and whose idea of conquest was destruction. It might well have seemed as if the fairest portions of the world had been given up to a returning barbarism ; as if all that had been achieved in the progress of mankind was to pass away ; and as if there were nothing more to hope for the race. We now know that out almost say
of this enormous cataclysm was to grow a new world ; that the real future of the race was preparing in these very events, so destructive and apparently so ruinous ; that here, amidst storm, and earthquake, and ruin were gathered the elements of a wholly new order in human affairs, and new hope for mankind.
Nor does it suffice to say that from causes so apparently inauspicious such results have come under divine overruling. That is no doubt true, but more than this is also true. Under that law of things which we trace in human affairs, one might
that the way of a new civilization required to be thus prepared ; so that while recognizing as we should the divine operation, we must also recognize the method. For, apart from what should be equivalent to a new creation, one fails to see how that degenerate, corrupt, enfeebled, utterly despicable old world could ever have given birth to this new world. Pagan culture had done its best, and had completely failed to develop any truly regenerative force. Pagan religion had fallen into just disrepute with all save the blindly superstitious. Pagan philosophy had ended in the dreams of mystics or the impositions of mountebanks. Government, save in exceptional instances which occur only as episodes in the gloomy story, was everywhere equally imbecile and cruel, and society everywhere disorderly and corrupt. Christianity itself seemed likely to prove a failure unless it could have new material to work upon. It was necessary that there should be even a new style of manhood generated. It was a severe process, yet as we see things it seems like a necessary one, that which was made use of to this end. The barbarian invasion brought in the needed new element, and in the blending of races a new human product appeared.
And this new element which came in with the northern invasion, fierce and rude as it was, nevertheless in many things was essentially noble. No better indication of this could be needed, than was seen in the instinctive recognition these barbarians in due time gave to what was left of the really great and grand in the old civilization. The Roman