Characteristics of the Present Age/Lecture 4


In our last lecture we set forth the principle directly opposed to that of the Third Age which we have undertaken to characterize,—the principle of the Life according to Reason;—this, namely,—that the personal life of man should be devoted to the Life of the Race, or, as we further defined this expression, to Ideas; and we found it desirable to prolong our consideration of this principle, as one of the more luminous points in our inquiry. I proposed, in the first place, to show you by your own nature, that you could not help approving, admiring, and respecting in the highest degree the sacrifice of the enjoyments of life for the realization of an Idea; that hence a principle upon which this judgment was founded must exist indestructibly within you; a principle namely to this effect,—that the personal life ought to be given up for the Idea; and that, strictly speaking, personal existence is not, since it should thus be sacrificed; while, on the contrary, the life in the Idea alone is, since it alone ought to be maintained. I explained this expected admiration on your part by this proposition: All life necessarily loves itself, and therefore the Life according to Reason must love itself, and, as the only true and real Life, must love itself with a love far exceeding all other love. Now the Life according to Reason may exist and be known to man in two different ways:—either in mere conception, and as the picture of a condition foreign to his own;—or by himself living this life. In the first case, it loves itself and delights in itself as seen in this conception, because this is at least the conception of the Life according to Reason, and is itself according to Reason; and then there arises the approval, admiration, and reverence of which we have spoken. In the second case, it rises to infinite enjoyment of its own being, which is Blessedness. The former condition,—that of approval,—I proposed to test by your own feelings in our last lecture; promising you for to-day a feeble description of the second.

And in the fulfilment of my first object, that I might not roam about at random, blindly groping among my materials, but arrange my thoughts around a common centre, I said—‘Everything great and good on which our Age rests, and by the power of which it exists, has been brought about by the sacrifices which the Past has made for Ideas.’ By calling to mind that the land had been redeemed from the state of wildness to that of cultivation, mankind from the state of war to that of peace, from ignorance to knowledge, from blind terror before God to emancipation from such fear,—I showed that the first of these changes, at least in the countries which we inhabit, had been effected by pious and holy men; and the last, everywhere and in all lands, by Heroes;—all of whom, the one class as well as the other, had sacrificed their life and its enjoyments for the sake of their Ideas. While I was proceeding to answer an objection which might be made with reference to this last point, my discourse was interrupted by the expiry of our usual time, and I now resume it at the same place.

It is Honour, some one may say, which inspires the Hero,—the burning image of his fame now and in after-times, which impels him onward through difficulty and danger, and which repays him for his life of sacrifice and self-denial in the coin on which he sets most value. I answer, even if this should be so, what then is this Honour? Whence has this thought of the judgment which others may pass upon us, particularly of the judgment of future generations whose praise or blame shall echo over our graves unheard by us;—whence has it acquired this amazing power which enables it to suppress and extinguish the personal life of the Hero? Is it not obvious that in the depths of his mind there lies a principle which tells him that only on one condition can his life be of any value to him,—can be even endurable by him;—this, namely, that the voices of Mankind at large shall unite in ascribing a value to it? Is not this very thought the Idea of the Race, and of its judgment as a Race on the Individual, and the admission that the Race alone is entitled to pass the final judgment upon true merit? Is it not the supposition that this final judgment must be grounded on the inquiry whether the Individual has or has not devoted himself to the Race?—and is it not a silent, respectful acquiescence in this judgment proceeding on these premises?—in a word, is not this Idea precisely that in which we have placed the Life according to Reason? But let us more thoroughly investigate this matter.

The Hero acts:—undoubtedly then, I add, he acts in a certain way;—in order, it is said, thereby to acquire fame in the eyes of Present and Future Ages:—undoubtedly then, I add again, without having first interrogated the Present and Future Ages whether they would laud a life so employed;—without, I add yet again, having had it in his power to seek counsel of experience in any way upon this question; because his mode of action, so surely as it proceeds upon an Idea, is a new, hitherto unknown mode, upon which therefore no human judgment has ever yet been pronounced. But, it is said, he reckons so securely on fame being the result of this mode of action, that he is ready to peril his life on the accuracy of his calculations. How does he know, then, that he has not miscalculated? At the time when he goes forth into action, and has already once for all completed in his own mind the consecration of his life, he and he only, and none other but himself, has examined and approved the mode of life which he has set before him;—how then does he know that Present and Future Ages will likewise approve it and cover it with immortal glory?—how does he come so boldly to ascribe to the whole Race his own standard of what is honourable and praiseworthy? Yet he does this, as is alleged; and this single remark of itself proves, that, in acting as he does, far from being moved thereto by the hope of future fame, he holds up to future Ages, in his own deeds springing forth in native purity from the primeval fountain of honour, the example of what they must approve and reverence, if their judgment is to have any weight with him;—despising and even utterly rejecting such judgment if it be not in accordance with that which has already approved itself to him as worthy of eternal honour and respect. And thus it is not ambition which is the parent of great deeds, but great deeds themselves give birth to faith in a world in which they must command respect. That form of Honour, indeed, which comes before us in every-day life, and of which we do not now speak, proceeds entirely from fear of disgrace; without power to excite man to active duty, it only holds him back from that which would be notoriously despised, and disappears as soon as he can hope to pass unnoticed. Another Ambition, of which too we do not now speak, which first pores over ancient chronicles to discover what in them is commended, and then endeavours to imitate that, so as also to become an object of commendation; and which being incapable of creating the New, strives to reproduce in itself certain effete memorials of the Past, which once indeed may have possessed life and energy:—such an ambition may sacrifice itself, but that to which it devotes itself is not an Idea but a Conceit;—and it misses its purpose; for what is once dead never lives again,—and whatever may be its success in the senseless and purblind Present, the Future will assuredly despise the Imitator who mistakes himself for a Creator.

This remark upon Honour, which has been here adduced only in reference to Heroism, is also applicable to what is to follow, where in like manner superficiality is wont to speak of an ambition the nature and possibility of which it has not power to comprehend.

In our former lecture we said that the once timid savage, to whom every power of Nature was an obstacle and a hindrance, is now through Science made acquainted with his own constitution, and has thus attained a mastery over the powers of the outward universe. Who are they who have discovered and extended the Sciences?—have they accomplished this without labour and sacrifice?—what has been their reward?

While the Age in which they lived spent its days in gay enjoyment, they sat wrapt in solitary thought, in order that they might disclose a law or a relation which had called forth their admiration, and with respect to which they had absolutely no other desire than simply to disclose it; sacrificing pleasure and fortune, neglecting their outward concerns, and lavishing their finest genius in these researches; laughed at by the multitude as fools and dreamers. Now, their discoveries have proved of manifold advantage to human life, as we have already called to mind. But have they themselves enjoyed these fruits of their labours? have they foreseen or even conjectured these results?—have they not rather, when their spiritual aspirations have been repressed by such views of their occupation, uttered truly sublime lamentations over the desecration of the Holy to the profane uses of life, it being concealed from them that life itself must be thereby sanctified? Only when, through their labours, these discoveries had been made so comprehensible, and a knowledge of them had been so widely diffused, as to be carried out into practice by less inspired minds (whom we, looking from an entirely different point of view, would by no means on that account despise, but of whom it should be distinctly understood that they are not of so noble a nature as the first;)—only then have these discoveries been applied to the wants of life, and so become the means of arming the Human Race with superior power over the forces of Nature. If, thus, no vision, not even a presentiment, of the usefulness of their discoveries could indemnify them for their sacrifices, what was their reward?—and what, at the present day, is the reward of those, if at the present day there be such, who with the same devotion, the same sacrifices, the same disinterested zeal, amid the scorn and mockery of the vulgar, raise their eyes towards the ever-flowing fountain of Truth? This it is:—they have entered into a new life-element of spiritual clearness and purity, whereby life in any other form becomes absolutely repulsive to them. A Higher World, which is first and most intimately made known to us by the light which is native within it, has arisen upon them; this light has filled their eyes with its beneficent and inspiring radiance, so that henceforth and forever they can regard nothing but that illumined height shining in deep surrounding darkness. This heavenly vision so rivets their gaze, so enchains their whole being, that every other sense is silently absorbed therein. They need no recompense; they have made an incalculable gain.

The dreadful phantom of a Deity hostile to Mankind has vanished, and the Human Race is now delivered from this horror, and enjoys tranquillity and freedom. Who has eradicated this error, so widely spread and deeply rooted among all nations?—has this been accomplished without sacrifice?—what has been the reward of such sacrifice?

It is the Christian Religion alone which has wrought this stupendous miracle, and it has accomplished this triumph by means of countless sacrifices on the part of those whose lives have been filled by its inspiration and devoted to its service. What they have endured;—what the Exalted Founder himself,—what his immediate followers,—what their successors through a long series of ages, until even to us, as to a later birth, their word came;—what they all have wrought and suffered among rude and superstitious nations, animated only by the gladdening and inspiring truth which had risen upon their souls and become the ruling impulse of their lives,—I shall not here call to mind. This Age is not ignorant of these things; it brings them sufficiently into notice, in order that it may laugh at the fanaticism which is all it can discover in them. Only through Christianity; through the vast miracle in which it had its origin, and by which it was ushered into the world, has this change been effected. It is no doubt quite conceivable that after the Truth has once been proclaimed, and in consequence of its numerous adherents has even acquired an authority among men, we may by peaceful inquiry investigate its foundations, reconstruct it by the power of our own understanding, and so, in a certain sense, rediscover it: but whence the great Founder obtained courage boldly to confront the phantom which had been consecrated by the universal assent of all former Ages, and the very thought of which had paralysed every exertion, and to discover that it was not, but that instead of it there was only Happiness and Love:—this was the miracle. So far as regards the representatives of this Age, it is very certain, if we may judge by other proofs of their acuteness and penetration, that it is not this acuteness, but only the unacknowledged influence exercised over them by this very tradition,—an influence which they deride wherever their dull eye can reach it,—to which they owe it that they do not, even to the present day, smite their faces before idols of wood, and pass their children through the fire to Moloch.

Whether you can forbear from passing a sentence of approval on the sacrifice of personal enjoyment for the sake of Ideas manifested in all these examples, is the question which I must now leave you to answer for yourselves, and also to draw from this phenomenon the inferences which, as we formerly maintained, must necessarily follow from it.

This approval is, as we formerly explained, the immediate effect of the contemplation of the Life in Idea merely in conception, and as a condition foreign to ourselves. We added that the existence of this Life, not in conception only, but in living reality, was the source of an infinite self-enjoyment, which is Blessedness; and we promised a description of this state, which may indeed prove but weak and inadequate, as every mere picture of a living reality must prove.

This is the place more definitely to explain the peculiar nature of the Idea as such;—an explanation for which we have endeavoured to prepare the way by our previous course of thought.

I say, then, that the Idea is an independent, living, matter-inspiring Thought.

First,—an independent Thought: Herein, indeed, consists the perverted way of thinking of the Third Age, and generally every perverted way of thinking,—that it ascribes independence, self-reliance, and self-subsistence to mere dead and torpid matter, and then superadds to that the quite superfluous quality of thought, one knows not why or how. No! Thought itself is alone truly independent and self-existent;—not indeed the thought which belongs to the single thinking Individual, which truly cannot be self-existent,—but the One Eternal Thought, in which all Individuals are but Thoughts. The innermost root of this world is not Death,—Death which, by gradual restriction and limitation of its power, may be refined and subtilized into Life;—but, on the contrary, Life is the root of the World, and what there seems to be Death is but a feebler form of Life. A living Thought: as is obvious at once, for Thought is by its very nature living, even as self-existence is by its very nature living; and thus Thought can only be conceived of as self-existent, and self-existence can only be ascribed to Thought, inasmuch as both bear within them the Idea of Life. A matter-inspiring Thought:—and this in a two-fold sense: All material Life is the expression of the Idea;—for matter itself is but the reflection of a latent Idea, from which it derives the motion and vitality it contains. But where the Idea breaks through this external covering, reveals itself openly and distinctly as Idea, and bursts forth in its own peculiar self-sustaining Life, then the lower grade of life, where the Idea lies latent, disappears in the higher, which now alone fills the individual life, and lives its own Life therein;—and then arises, in a word, that phenomenon which has shown itself in all our previous descriptions,—the phenomenon of the sacrifice of the personal, i.e. of the undeveloped ideal life, to the Life of the Idea distinctly revealed as such. Thus, I say, it is with Life:—not the flesh liveth but the spirit; and this fundamental truth, which the speculative philosopher can prove by the necessary laws of thought, has been verified and proved in his own person by every one in whom the Idea has assumed a determinate living form, although it may be that he himself has not been clearly conscious of it. To raise this direct proof from personal experience into the clearness of distinct consciousness, and so bring it home to every one, is the business of popular-philosophical teaching, and here especially it is mine.

We said that where the Idea manifests itself in its proper and independent Life, the lower form of life, namely the sensuous, entirely disappears in it and is for ever superseded and extinguished. The love of this lower form of life for itself, and its interest in itself, is annihilated. But all our wants arise only from the existence of this interest, and all our griefs from wounding it. The Life in the Idea is forever secured against all disturbance in this respect, for it has withdrawn itself from the sphere in which alone such disturbance is possible. For this Life there is no self-denial and no sacrifice;—the self which has to be denied, and the desires which have to be sacrificed, are withdrawn from its sight, and its love for them has disappeared. This self-denial and these sacrifices excite astonishment only in him for whom their objects still possess value, because he himself has not yet relinquished them;—when they are once relinquished they vanish into oblivion, and he finds that, in truth, he has lost nothing. The stern and authoritative Law of Duty, which presupposes vicious inclinations, and only exists that it may scare back the first movements of desire into the dim obscurities of thought, is abolished in the Life in the Idea. ‘Ce n’est que le premier pas qui coûte.’ This higher Life once attained, that which at first was enforced upon man as the stern command of Duty becomes his spontaneous rule of conduct, the end for which alone he desires to live,—his sole joy, love, and blessedness. Thus, it is only ignorance which dreams that a profound philosophy would recall the gloomy morality of self-crucifixion and martyrdom. Oh no!—it invites man to cast from him that which can afford no enjoyment, in order that the source of infinite enjoyment may approach him, and fill his being with its presence.

The Idea is independent, self-sufficient, self-existent; it lives and has its being absolutely for its own sake alone; and scorns every outward and adventitious object. Hence it does not value and love its Life according to the foreign standard of any result, use, or advantage which may arise therefrom. As in the Life of the Race the Idea strives constantly towards absolute worth, not mere welfare,—worth in itself, not mere deserving;—so when it nourishes the individual life of man it is wholly satisfied with this worth, without demanding any ulterior results. The uncertainty of such results can thus never cloud its inward brightness, nor the actual want of them cause it grief; for it has never counted upon outward consequences, but on the contrary has resigned them along with every other desire of sense. How could sorrow, pain, or disturbance ever enter within the circle of a Life thus strictly comprehended within itself?

The Idea is sufficient in itself for the living, active Life which eternally flows forth from it, without need of aught else, and without allowing aught else to exercise an influence within it. The consciousness of this ever-present independence; this self-sufficiency for infinite and unceasing activity; the purity of this sacred, self-fed flame, which with steady and unvarying power burns onward through Eternity,—is the love of the Life of Reason for itself, its self-enjoyment, its Blessedness. No idle brooding over its own image, no contemplation of its own excellence;—for reflection is swallowed up in fact, and the unresting, ever-burning flame of real Life, having annihilated the Past and sunk it into the depths of oblivion, leaves neither time nor opportunity again to recall it thence.

To those in whom the Idea has never attained to life in any form, such delineations of the Blessedness of the Life in Idea are wholly unintelligible—tones from another world; and—since they necessarily deny the existence of any world but their own,—dreams, folly, and fanaticism. But are we not entitled to calculate with some measure of certainty that in cultivated society every one has in some way or other come into contact with Ideas?

As the Idea is simple in its nature, so is the Blessedness of the Life in the Idea everywhere one and the same;—namely, the immediate consciousness of original spontaneous Energy. It is only in relation to the objects on which this Energy descends, and in which it reveals itself within our own sense and consciousness, that the one Idea assumes different forms;—which different forms are then themselves named Ideas. I say expressly,—within our own sense and consciousness; for only in consciousness do these manifestations of the Idea differ from each other: beyond that they are but one.

The first form assumed among men by this effluence of Original Energy,—that in which it has manifested itself in the earliest Ages, and in which it is most widely active at the present day, is its expression in outward matter by means of our own material power;—and in this expression of the Idea the Fine Arts consist. Effluence of Original Energy, I have said,—flowing forth from itself, and sufficient for itself, independent of experience or observation of the external world. This latter gives us only individual, and therefore ignoble and hateful, conceptions, which in having attained reality in one instance, have attained it once too often already;—the repetition and multiplication of which by Art would be but an evil service to humanity. In outward matter, I said,—irrespective of its peculiarities:—whether the physical representation of one lost in the Idea (for this alone is the true object of Art) stand fixed in marble, or glow upon the canvass; or the emotions of an inspired soul find an utterance in music, or the feelings and thoughts of such a mind speak themselves simply in words;—still it is the effluence of Original Energy in outward matter.

The true Artist, in the sense in which we have spoken of him, finds in the practice of his Art the highest enjoyment of the Blessedness we have described; for his whole being goes forth in free self-sufficient activity, and in the consciousness of this activity. And is there any one, then, to whom every way is closed of participating in the enjoyment of such creations; and so, in a certain sense, and in a far inferior degree, becoming a joint-creator of them; and in this way at least perceiving that there is a delight which immeasurably transcends every enjoyment of sense?

Another and higher form of the Idea, which however manifests itself in fewer individuals, is the effluence of Original Energy in the Social relations of Mankind; the source of all great world-embracing political Ideas; in life the parent of Heroism, and the author of all Law and Order among men. What power this Idea confers upon man, we have already seen; with what Blessedness it fills the soul devoted to its service, follows from what we have said; and whoever amongst you can think of the world and his country, and can devote his life to their service in forgetfulness of self, knows it from his own experience.

A third form of the Idea is the effluence of the Original Energy in the building up and reconstructing the Universe from itself, i.e. from Thought,—in other words Science; for whenever Science has shown itself among men, it has been essentially this which I have said, and so it must be forever. The high enjoyment which Science ensures to her votaries has been already described:—we have but to add that this pleasure is more spiritual, and hence higher and more exquisite, than any other ideal enjoyment, because here the Idea is not only present, but is felt and enjoyed as Idea,—as Thought itself rising into visibility from the depths of its own nature;—and this is without doubt the highest Blessedness to which mortal can attain here below. It is only in their outward influence that the Fine Arts have an advantage over Science, inasmuch as they are able at times to raise even the uninitiated to their own height by the magic of spiritual sympathy, and so give him a foretaste of perfect enjoyment; while the secrets of Science are accessible only to those for whom they have ceased to be secrets.

Finally:—the most comprehensive, all-embracing and universally comprehensible form of the Idea;—the conscious dwelling of all activity and all life in the One, Ever Present Source of Life, the Godhead;—or Religion. He in whom this consciousness arises with immediate and unalterable certitude and becomes the soul of all his other knowledge, thoughts, and feelings,—he has entered into possession of a happiness which can never be disturbed. Whatever he encounters, is a form of that original source of Life which in all its forms is holy and good, and which he cannot but love in every shape it may assume; for it is, as he may express it in other words, the Will of God, with which his Will is always at one. Whatever he may be called upon to do, however difficult, mean, or ignoble it may seem, is the living form of that fountain of Life within him, to be the expression of which constitutes his greatest happiness;—it is the Will of God with him; and to be the instrument of God is his supreme delight. He who ploughs his field in this Faith and Love is infinitely more blessed than he who, without them, removes mountains.

These are the materials for the picture of the One Life according to Reason, to the delineation of which we have devoted the last and the present lecture. Let us now gather together these materials into one conception.

We said that the different forms into which the conception of the One Eternal Original Energy separates itself in our consciousness, and of which we have now indicated the most remarkable, are nevertheless, beyond this consciousness of ours, only one and the same Energy. Wherever this Energy enters into life in any one of these forms, it nevertheless, in and by virtue of that form, embraces itself as a whole, loves itself as a whole, and develops itself as a whole, only without its own knowledge or consciousness; nowhere separated into parts, but always the One, undivided Energy repeated and reproduced in different shapes; everywhere the One Life, the fountain of whose Being is in itself Alone, ceaselessly producing itself anew in its own primitive unity, and in its movement rolling forth the one undivided stream of Time. This One Idea, in the form of the Fine Arts, impresses upon the life-elements which lie around us the outward image of a Humanity lost in the Idea,—to this end only, whether conscious of it or not, that thereby future generations, even on awakening to life, may be surrounded by representations of what is excellent and worthy, and thus receive a sympathetic education of the outward sense, whereby an efficient preparation is made for the cultivation of the inward life;—and so, in this particular form, the Idea struggles towards itself, and labours for itself, as a Whole. Or, the same One Idea, in the form of Religion,—of the soaring of all Earthly Life and activity towards the One, Eternal, Ever-pure, Ever-good, Ever blessed Source of Life,—what is it? What noble mind, thoroughly aware of the true character of the Earthly Life, and no longer attracted by it, could prevail upon itself to pursue this Life without that relation to the One, Eternal, and Abiding Life which Religion offers to its view? And thus it is again the One, Undivided Idea which in this form of Religion upholds itself and its final issues, and resolves the otherwise indissoluble contradictions between the feelings which it inspires and the burdens which it cannot help imposing. And so it is with every other form of the Idea which we have named, and with every other possible form;—the elucidation of which I must leave to your own reflection.

Thus, I said, does the One, Eternal, Self-comprehensive, Self-existent Idea roll forth in the undivided Stream of Time. And, I add, that in every individual moment of this Time-stream it comprehends and pervades itself, being throughout all Time eternally present to itself. What takes place in it at any moment of time, is now, only because the Past has been, and because the Future Eternity shall be. Nothing in this system is lost. Worlds produce worlds, Ages produce new Ages, which stand in contemplation over those which have gone before, and bring to light the secret bond of connexion which unites causes and consequences within them. Then the grave opens,—not that which men heap together on the earth, but the grave of impenetrable darkness wherewith the first life has surrounded us,—and from out it arises the mighty power of Ideas, which sees in a new light the End in the Beginning, the Perfect in the Partial; every work however humble which springs from Faith in the Eternal is revealed, and the secret aspirations which are here imprisoned and bound down to earth soar upwards on unfettered pinions into a new and purer ether.

In one word: As when the breath of Spring enlivens the air the strong and fixed ice, which but a moment before imprisoned each atom within itself and shut up each neighbouring atom in similar isolation, now no longer maintains its rigid bondage but flows forth in one free, animated, and glowing flood; as the powers of Nature, which were before divided, and in their separation and antagonism produced only devastation and death, now rush together, embrace and interpenetrate each other, and in this free communion send forth a living balsam upon every sense; so does the Spirit-World not indeed flow together at the breath of Love, for in it there is no Winter, but there all is and abides in eternal communion with the mighty Whole. Nothing individual can live in itself or for itself, but all live in the Whole, and this Whole unceasingly dies for itself in unspeakable love, that it may rise again in new Life. This is the law of the spiritual world:—All that comes into existence falls a sacrifice to an eternally increasing and ascending Life; and this law constantly rules over all, without waiting for the consent of any. Here alone lies the distinction;—whether man allow himself to be led, with the halter round his head, like a beast, to the slaughter; or freely and nobly bring his life a gift to the altar of the Eternal Life, in the full fore-enjoyment of the new Life which is to arise from his ashes.

So is it:—under this sacred Legislation, willing or unwilling, asked or unasked, we all stand;—and it is but a heavy fever-dream which weighs upon the brain of the Egoist when he thinks that he may live for himself alone, whereby he cannot change the nature of things, but only does himself a wrong. Might there some more gladdening dream from out the Infinite Silence at times refresh the slumberer in the cradle of Eternity!—might there, from time to time, prophetic whispers fall upon his ear, that there is a Light and a Day!