Characteristics of the Present Age/Lecture 3


It is only by degrees that clearness can spread itself over our inquiry;—only step by step can light penetrate its deeper recesses; until at length the end reveal itself before us in unclouded brightness. This condition of our inquiry lies, as we said in our first lecture, in the unchangeable laws which regulate all communication of thought. Beyond the duty incumbent on the speaker to arrange his thoughts in their proper order, and to set each in its proper place, his art can do nothing to modify the condition of which we have spoken, except this,—heedfully to pause at each brighter point which presents itself in the course of his communication, and from thence to send forth rays of light upon what has gone before and what is to follow.

In our last lecture we arrived at one of these brighter points in the inquiry which we have undertaken; and it is fit and proper that we should to-day more fully develope this point. That the Human Race should order all its relations with Freedom according to Reason;—this was set forth as the end and purpose of the Earthly Life of our Race; and the characteristic peculiarity of the Third Age, which it is our business to describe, was declared to be, that it had thrown off the yoke of Reason in every shape. But what Reason itself is, and in what a Life according to Reason consists, and what are the relations which are ordered by Reason in a life so governed by it;—these things have been indeed indicated in many ways, but not yet anywhere placed in a clear light. In our last lecture, however, we said—‘Reason embraces only the One Life, which manifests itself as the Life of the Race. Were Reason taken away from human life, there would remain only Individuality and the love of Individuality.’ Hence the Life according to Reason consists herein,—that the Individual forget himself in the Race, place his own life in the life of the Race and dedicate it thereto;—the Life opposed to Reason, on the contrary, consists in this,—that the Individual think of nothing but himself, love nothing but himself and in relation to himself, and set his whole existence in his own personal well-being alone:—and since we may briefly call that which is according to Reason good, and that which is opposed to Reason evil, so there is but One Virtue,—to forget one’s own personality;—and but One Vice,—to make self the object of our thoughts. Hence the view of Morality depicted in our last lecture as that of the Third Age here as everywhere precisely reverses the fact, and makes that its only Virtue which is in reality the only Vice, and that its only Vice which is in truth the only Virtue.

These words are to be understood strictly as we have spoken them, in their most rigorous sense. The mitigation of our principle which might be attempted here, namely—that it is only our duty not to think of ourselves exclusively, but also upon others,—is precisely the same Morality as that which we have represented as belonging to the Third Age, only that here it is inconsequential, and seeks to disguise itself, not having yet altogether triumphed over shame. He who but thinks at all of his own personality, and desires any kind of life or being, or any joy of life, except in the Race and for the Race, with whatever vesture of good deeds he may seek to hide his deformity, is nevertheless, at bottom, only a mean, base, and therefore unhappy man. Hence our principle, as we ourselves have expressed it in all its rigour,—it and nothing else,—is our meaning, against which it is, and always will be, impossible to bring forward any essential objection.

Whatever has been urged against this principle hitherto since mankind had a being, or can be urged so long as it shall have a being, is grounded upon the bold assertion that man cannot forget himself, and that personal self-love has grown up in such intimate union with his nature that it is now inextricably interwoven with it. I ask such assertors, Whence then have they obtained their knowledge of what man can do, and what he cannot? Obviously this assertion of theirs can be founded on nothing else than observation of themselves;—and it may indeed be true that they for themselves, since they have become what they are and wish to remain so, may never be able to forget their own personal welfare. But by what right do they make the standard of their ability or non-ability the measure of the capacity of the Race? The noble mind can indeed understand the thought of the ignoble, for we are all born and fashioned in Egoism, and have all lived in it, and it needs struggle and effort to destroy this old nature within us; but the ignoble cannot know the thoughts of the noble, because he has never entered the world to which they belong, nor traversed it as his world has of necessity been traversed in all its extent by the noble. The latter surveys both worlds, the former only that which holds him captive;—as the Waker may in his waking understand the Dream, and the Seer conceive of Darkness; but the Dreamer cannot in his dream comprehend the Waking, nor the Blind-born imagine Light. Only when they have attained to this higher world, and have taken possession of it, shall they be able to do that which they now declare they cannot do, and only by acquiring this ability for themselves can they learn that Man is capable of acquiring it.

Herein, therefore, have we placed the True Life,—the Life according to Reason,—that the personal life of Man be dedicated to that of his Race,—that the one be forgotten in the other. To forget oneself in others:—not in others regarded likewise in a personal character, where there is still nothing but Individuality;—but in others regarded as the Race. Understand me:—the sympathy which prompts us to mitigate the sorrows of others, and to share and exalt their joys; the attachment which binds us to friends and relatives; the love that entwines us with our families;—all these, being frequently attended with considerable sacrifices of our own personal convenience and enjoyment, are the first secret and silent movements of Reason as Instinct, gently breaking down the harshest and coarsest forms of Egoism, and so laying the foundation for the development of a wider and more comprehensive love. But as yet this love, far from comprehending Humanity as a whole, without distinction of person and considered as the Race, embraces only individual persons; and although it is thus assuredly the vestibule to the higher Life, and no one can obtain entrance to the latter who has not first been consecrated thereto in this realm of gentler impulses,—still it is not in itself that higher Life. That embraces the Race itself, as a Race. But the Life of the Race is expressed only in Ideas;—the fundamental character of which, as well as their various forms, we shall come to understand sufficiently in the course of these lectures. Thus the formula which we laid down,—‘That the life of Man be dedicated to that of his Race,’—may also be expressed thus,—‘That the life of Man be dedicated to Ideas;’—for Ideas embrace the Race as such, and its Life; and thus the Life according to Reason, or the only good and true Life, consists in this,—that Man forget himself in Ideas, and neither seek nor know any enjoyment save in Ideas, and in sacrificing all other enjoyments for them.—Thus far for our explanation. Let us now proceed to another matter.

This, namely:—If you yourselves, compelled by an inward power, should feel it impossible to withhold your approval, your admiration, and your reverence from a Life such as we have described, and were even compelled to reverence it more profoundly the greater and more evident the sacrifices made at the shrine of Ideas,—so surely, I say, would it be obvious, from this your approval, that there is a principle, indestructibly rooted in your minds, which proclaims that the personal life ought to be brought a sacrifice to the Idea, and that the Life in which it is so offered up is the only true and upright Life;—hence, if we regard the matter strictly,—that the individual life has no real existence, since it has no value of itself, but must and should sink to nothing; while, on the contrary, the Race alone exists, since it alone ought to be looked upon as really living. In this way we should keep the promise we gave in our former lecture, to show you, in a popular way and by your own knowledge of yourselves, that the principle which we then announced, and which at first sight seemed so paradoxical, was in truth already well known and admitted by you, and indeed was the constant director and guide of your judgment, although you might not be clearly conscious of it;—and we should thus attain both the objects which I had in view in the present lecture.

That you should actually be necessitated to approve, admire, and reverence such a Life as we have described, was the first step in our argument, upon which all else depended, and from which all else necessarily followed;—and this we must commit entirely to your own reflection, without interference on our part. Hence it is only my task to make an experiment on you and within you, and should this succeed, as I expect it will, then we shall have proved our position.

I shall make this experiment upon your minds, unquestionably with the view of exciting a certain feeling in you; but not so as to take you unawares, or to excite this feeling merely for the sake of exciting it, and that so I may be enabled to make a momentary use of it to aid my purpose, as the orator does; but, on the contrary, that this feeling may be excited in you with your own clear and distinct consciousness and concurrence, not exerting a mere passive influence on you, but to the end that its existence may be clearly recognised by you, and that it may thus be more fully and completely understood.

The philosopher is compelled, by the rules of his art, to deal with perfect openness and honesty; and in return he acquires a power which lies far beyond the sophistries of mere eloquence;—he is able to declare to his hearers beforehand the emotion which he desires to excite within them, and, provided they rightly understand him, to attain his object notwithstanding the disclosure.

This free and open announcement of the purpose which we have in view, lays me under an obligation to describe more particularly the nature of the effect which I shall attempt to produce within you; and in order to maintain the clear, intelligible position which we have now attained, I shall at once proceed to this description. I have only to ask you to fix in your mind a few expressions and phrases which may not as yet be entirely distinct to you, but which shall be made perfectly clear in the sequel.

The Life according to Reason must necessarily love itself; for every form of life, as its own perfect result and fulfilment, is enjoyment of itself. As surely as Reason can never be entirely extinguished among men, so surely can this love of Reason for itself never be utterly destroyed; nay, this love, as the deepest root of all rational existence, and as the sole remaining tie which keeps men within the circle of rational existence, is precisely that whereby we may most surely recognise and attain the Life according to Reason, if we will only be honest and unprejudiced.

Now the Life opposed to Reason,—that of mere Individuality,—likewise loves itself; since it too is life, and all life necessarily loves itself. But as these two forms of life are thoroughly opposed to each other, so also are the kinds of love and satisfaction which they have in themselves quite opposed to each other,—wholly and specifically different;—and in this specific difference they are easily recognised and distinguished from each other.

To begin with the love which the Life according to Reason entertains for itself. Towards this Life we may stand in a double relation:—either, we may possess it only in conception, in a feeble and imperfect representation, and only as received from others;—or, we may ourselves truly and in reality be and live this Life. That mankind cannot at the present day stand in the latter relation,—since, in that case, there would be not only no Egoism, and no Third Age of the world, but also no true Freedom,—this has already been admitted; nay more,—that we have been all fashioned and born outside of this relation, and can only by labour and toil place ourselves therein. Hence it must be the first relation, namely the possession, or the capacity of possessing, the Life according to Reason in conception, which is never wholly extinguished among men, which all have the power to attain, and by which all may at least comprehend the Life according to Reason.

The love which the Life opposed to Reason bears to itself, with which indeed we are all better acquainted, and to which our language more easily accommodates itself, manifests itself in its specific character, both in general and in particulars,—as delight in its own sagacity, petty pride in its own cleverness and penetration, and,—to designate an ignoble thing by a befitting ignoble expression,—as self-satisfied chuckling over its own cunning. Thus in the former lecture it was represented as a fundamental characteristic of the Third Age, that it looked down with haughty self-complacency on those who suffer themselves to be defrauded of present enjoyment by a dream of Virtue, congratulating itself that it is far above such delusions, and therefore secure from being imposed upon;—its true character being admirably expressed in a single phrase,—would-be-Enlightenment. Thus the highest and most refined enjoyment which he who cares best for his own advantage, and successfully pursues it through many difficulties, can attain, is the satisfaction he must feel in his own shrewdness and skill. On the contrary, the love which the Life according to Reason bears to itself, as a legitimate and well-ordered existence, manifests itself in its specific character, not as unexpected gratification, but in the dignified form of approval, esteem, and reverence.

In so far as we have attained the Life according to Reason, in the first way, namely, in conception, and as a picture of a Life removed from our own, in so far will this conception lovingly welcome and dwell upon itself in delighted complacency;—for, in that case, we shall at least have entered so far into the sphere of the Life of Reason, as to possess a worthy and adequate image of it. (We may add here, for the benefit of those who are acquainted with the scientific language of philosophy, that the feeling thus produced is an aesthetic pleasure, and indeed the highest aesthetic pleasure.)

This pleasure, however,—this approbation of something foreign to us,—something which we ourselves are not,—inspires us with respect and reverence, combined, in the best of our race, with silent unsatisfied regards thrown back upon themselves, and a secret longing to assimilate their own life to the object of their love; out of which longing the higher Life gradually unfolds itself. In so far as, in the second way, the Life according to Reason actually becomes conscious of itself as a real and present existence, it flows forth in unspeakable enjoyment and satisfaction, before the thought of which the Egoist must retreat in envy could he entertain the thought;—in this love to itself, it becomes pure Blessedness. For all feelings of disappointment and dissatisfaction, as well as those of desire and insufficiency, are nothing else than the birth-pains of the higher Life struggling towards its perfect development. Is it developed?—then is it thoroughly satisfied with itself, and sufficient for itself, needing nothing more, but possessing the most perfect Freedom within itself and in the consciousness of its own inherent power. Let us in the present lecture test the first condition by ourselves; in the next I shall attempt to present to you a feeble description of the second.

For our present purpose, I shall maintain the following proposition:—Everything great and good upon which our present existence rests, from which it has proceeded, and on the supposition of which alone our Age can order itself in the way it actually does, has an existence only because noble and powerful men have resigned all the enjoyments of life for the sake of Ideas; and we ourselves, and all that we are, are the result of the sacrifices of all previous generations, and especially of their worthiest members. I have, however, no thought of making use of this remark to bribe you into toleration towards our predecessors by contemplation of the advantages which we have derived from their sacrifices; for in that case I should excite in you, and make use of for my present purpose, precisely that mode of thought which, had I the power, I would extirpate from the world; and then I might justly expect this answer,—‘It is well for us that these fools have lived, who, in the sweat of their brow, gathered together the treasures we now enjoy; we shall, so far as in us lies, avoid similar folly:—let other generations look to their own prosperity when we shall be no more;’—and I should not be able to avoid commending this answer as, at least, consistent. It has even been seen, that with regard to efforts for the sake of Humanity which, provided they were otherwise conducted with propriety, have deserved no blame in this respect, men have lifted up their voices and asked,—‘Is it right that this generation should make such sacrifices for the future?’ and thereupon looked around with triumph, as if they had uttered something very profound and secure from controversy. At present, however, I only wish to know this,—whether you do not feel constrained to respect and admire in the highest degree such a course of thought and action, quite independently of any consideration of its prudence, upon which no judgment is now demanded.

Let us cast a glance on the world around us. You know that even now many tracts of the Earth’s surface are still covered with putrid morasses and impenetrable forests, the cold and damp atmosphere of which gives birth to noxious insects, and breathes forth devastating epidemics; which are almost entirely the dwelling-place of wild animals, and only afford to the few creatures in human form who are to be found in them the means of dragging on a dull and joyless existence, without freedom, usefulness, or dignity. History informs us that the countries which we inhabit at the present day formerly bore the same character to a large extent. Now, the morasses are dried up; the forests cleared out and changed into fruitful plains and vineyards which purify the air and fill it with enlivening fragrance; the rivers are taught to keep their channels, and enduring bridges are laid across them; villages and towns have arisen, with lasting, convenient, and agreeable dwelling-places for men, and public buildings, which have already braved the storms of centuries, for the purposes of mental improvement and elevation. You know that, even at the present day, savage hordes roam over vast wildernesses, maintaining a miserable life upon impure and loathsome food, and yet, when they encounter each other, engaging in warfare for the sake of this scanty subsistence, and of their wretched implements of acquisition and enjoyment,—extending the fury of their vengeance even to devouring their fellow-men. It is in the highest degree probable that we are all of us descendants of such races; that our forefathers, at least in some of their generations, have passed through this condition. Now, men are assembled from out the forests and united together in masses. In the savage state each family had to provide for its manifold wants immediately and without assistance from others, and had even to fabricate for itself the utensils for that purpose, with much loss of time and waste of energy:—Now, the human multitudes are divided into classes, each of which pursues its own profession, to the acquirement and exercise of which its life is devoted; providing in its own department for all other classes, and provided for by them with respect to all its other wants; and thus are the forces of Nature confronted by the greatest possible amount of the cultivated, ordered and combined powers of Reason. The laws and their administrators interpose an insuperable barrier to the fury of personal warfare and spoliation; quarrels are adjusted without bloodshed, and the lust of crime is scared back by severe punishments into the dark recesses of thought;—and thus is internal peace secured, and every one moves in safety within the limits which are prescribed to him. Large masses of men, frequently sprung from the most dissimilar origin, and united one scarce knows how, encounter similar masses in as wonderful combination, and neither being fully acquainted with the power of the other, reciprocal fear steps in between them, so that men are sometimes blessed even with external tranquillity; or when it does come to war, the superior power is often worn out and broken by the determined resistance of its opponent, and instead of the secretly desired extermination, peace is the result;—and thus has sprung up a kind of international law between independent countries, and from among opposing tribes a kind of republic of nations has arisen. You know how, even to the present time, the timid savage, unacquainted even with himself, finds a hindrance or a destroying foe in every power of Nature. To us, Science has laid open our own spiritual being, and thereby, in a great measure, subjected to our will the outward physical forces of the universe. Mechanical science has multiplied, almost to infinity, the feeble powers of man, and continues to multiply them. Chemistry has introduced us into many chambers of the secret workshop of Nature, and enabled us to apply her wonders to our own uses, and to protect ourselves from the injuries they might otherwise inflict upon us. Astronomy has scaled the heavens for us, and measured their paths. You know, and the whole history of the Past as well as the description of the savage tribes which still exist upon the earth proves it to you, that all nations, the most cultivated not excepted, flying from the horrors of external Nature, and penetrating to the secret depths of their own heart, have first discovered there the most fearful of all horrors;—the Godhead as their enemy. By cringing humiliation and entreaty, by sacrifice of that which was dearest to them, by voluntary self-imposed penances, by human immolation, by the blood of an only-begotten Son, if need were, have they sought to bribe this Being so jealous of human happiness, and to reconcile him to their unexpected strokes of fortune, by humbly deprecating his resentment.

This is the Religion of the ancient world, and of the savage tribes which still exist, and I challenge the student of History to point out any other. From us this phantom has disappeared long ago; and the redemption and satisfaction spoken of in a certain system is a public matter of fact, in which we may either believe or not,—and which is all the more a matter of fact the less we believe in it. Our Age, far from shunning the Godhead, has, by its representatives, constituted the Deity the minister of its pleasures. We, for our part, far from finding fault with them on account of this want of the fear of God, rather count it one of their advantages; and since they are incapable of the right enjoyment of the Godhead,—of loving it, and living in it, and thus attaining Blessedness,—we may be well pleased that, at least, they do not fear it. Let them, if they please, throw it off altogether, or so fashion it as may be most agreeable to them.

What I have declared in the first place, was once the form of Humanity, and in part is so still: what I have described in the second, is its present form, at least among ourselves. How, by whom, and by what manner of impulses, has this new creation been accomplished?

Who then, in the first place, gave to the countries of Modern Europe their present habitable shape, and made them worthy to be the dwelling-place of cultivated men? History answers the question. It was pious and holy men, who, believing it to be God’s Will that the timid fugitive of the woods should be elevated to civilized life, and thereby to the blessed knowledge of a Godhead full of love to man, left the abodes of civilization and all the physical and intellectual enjoyments to be found there,—left their families, friends and associates, and went forth into the desert wilderness, enduring the bitterest privations, encountering the severest labour, and, what is more, pursuing their end with unwearied patience, that they might win the confidence of untutored tribes, by whom they were persecuted and robbed;—frequently terminating an anxious and weary life by a martyr’s death at the hands of those for whom, and for us their descendants, they died,—rejoicing in the hope that from their ashes a worthier generation should arise. These men, without doubt, gave up their personal life and its enjoyments for their Idea, and in this Idea for the Race. And should any one offer this objection:—‘They indeed sacrificed the present life for the expectation of an infinitely higher, heavenly, and blessed life, which they hoped to deserve by these sacrifices and sufferings; but still it was only enjoyment for enjoyment, and indeed the lesser for the greater;’—then I would entreat such an objector earnestly to consider with me the following. How inadequately soever they might express themselves in words as to the Blessedness of another world, and with what sensuous pictures soever they might clothe their descriptions of this happiness, I ask only to know how they arrived at this firm Faith in another world, which they attested so nobly by their deeds; and what this Faith, as an act of the mind, really is. Does not the mind which faithfully accepts another world as certain, in this very acceptance renounce the present?—and is not this Faith itself the sacrifice, once and for ever accomplished and perfected in the mind, and which only manifests itself outwardly when special circumstances call it forth? Let it be no wonder at all, but quite a conceivable thing, and only what thou thyself, who makest this objection, wert thou in the same position, wouldst do,—that they willingly sacrificed everything to their belief in an Eternal Life:—let this be so; then is it the wonder that they did believe; in which belief the Egoist, who is incapable of letting the Present escape, even for a moment, from his view, can never follow nor even approach them.

Who has united rude races together, and reduced opposing tribes under the dominion of law, and to the habits of peaceful life? Who has maintained them in this condition, and protected existing states from dissolution through internal disorder, or destruction by outward power? Whatever name they may have borne, it was Heroes, who had left their Age far behind them, giants among surrounding men in material and spiritual power. They subdued to their Idea of what ought to be, races by whom they were on that account hated and feared; through sleepless nights of thought they pondered their anxious plans for their fellow-men; from battlefield to battlefield they rushed without weariness or rest, renouncing the enjoyments which lay within their grasp, making their life a spoil, often shedding their blood. And what sought they by these labours?—and how were they rewarded? It was an Idea, a mere Idea of a new condition of things to be brought about by them, to be realized for its own sake alone, and without reference to any ulterior purpose;—this it was which inspired them; and it was the unspeakable delight of this Idea which rewarded and indemnified them for all their labours and sacrifices;—it was this Idea which lay at the root of their inward life,—which cast the outward life into shade, and threw it aside as something undeserving of thought;—it was the power of this Idea which made them giants in physical and mental energy, although by birth like their fellow-men; and their personal life was dedicated to this Idea which first moulded that life into a worthy and accepted offering.

What impels the King, securely seated on a hereditary throne, with the fulness of the land spread out before him for his enjoyment,—what impels—(to combine my question with a well-known example so often misconstrued by a race of pigmy sentimentalists)—what impels the Macedonian hero to leave his hereditary kingdom already well secured on all sides and richly provided for by his father and to seek foreign lands to the conquest of which he forces his way by unceasing efforts? Will he thereby be happier or more contented?—What chains victory to his footsteps, and scatters before him in terror the countless hordes of his enemies?—Is this mere fortune? No!—it is an Idea which first gives the impulse, and which crowns the effort with success. Effeminate half-barbarians had looked down with scorn upon the most highly civilized people then living beneath the sun on account of their smaller numbers, and had even dared to entertain the thought of their subjugation; they had actually subdued kindred tribes dwelling in Asia, and subjected the cultivated and the free to the laws and odious inflictions of rude and enslaved nations. This outrage must not be perpetrated with impunity: on the contrary, the civilized must rule and the uncivilized must obey, if Right is to be the Law of the world. This Idea had already been long cherished in the nobler Grecian minds, until in Alexander it became a living flame which animated and consumed his personal life. Tell me not of the thousands who fell around his path; speak not of his own early ensuing death:—after the realization of his Idea, what was there greater for him to do than to die?