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Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 130.djvu/293

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INTERNATIONAL PREJUDICES.

goes up from the whole civilized world. We believe — as people believed at the opening of the French Revolution — in the perfectibility of mankind: war was about to disappear; reason was then to take the place of blind prejudice; social wrongs were all to be redressed; man was about to become omnipotent over matter; and all human wants to be supplied by the labors of half an hour in every day. Then came a change in our anticipations. The dawn was overcast. The old spectres of tyranny, cruelty, and superstition stalked abroad; we learnt anew the old lesson that the cause of our evils lies deep in the hearts and heads of mankind; and that stupid heads cannot be cleared nor corrupt hearts purified by any political catastrophe. A gloom settled over our spirits, and instead of expecting the millennium, we sought for analogies to our position in the periods of decaying empires and declining faith.

The external causes of this revulsion of sentiment are sometimes palpable; sometimes they must be sought for in some obscure morbid tendency. They represent the dim forecasts of

the prophetic soul

Of the wide world dreaming on things to come.

Nobody can fully explain his own moods, and tell why one hour of his own life is tinged with a mystic glory and the next wrapped in darkness; and still less can we unravel all the symptoms of widespread social disquiet. The race, like the individual, has strange presentiments of coming good or evil, which help perhaps to fulfil themselves. Just now, it may be said the spiritual barometer is low. We are tormented by a vague unrest. The enigmas of life torment us more than usual; and we know not whether our constitutional twinges forbode a coming attack or are destined to pass away like a bad dream. Men are not disposed either in England or America to indulge in that extravagant exhilaration which greeted the first great show a quarter of a century ago; an exhilaration which, seen by the light of later history, looks almost like a judicial infatuation. Grave men in all seriousness declared that the opening of a large bazaar was equivalent to the proclamation of a gospel of peace. We cannot think of such utterances without a cynical smile. We are looking rather at the seamy side of things; we ask whether the old order has vitality enough to throw off its maladies, and whether the new order promised by the sanguine is anything but a skilful pretext for an attack upon the very bases of society. In such a mood, the pleasant old confident formulæ are out of place. We are tired of calculating the number of miles of railway and yards of cotton turned out of factories and looms; and we cannot speak of the boundless stores of mineral wealth in the American continent without thinking of some mining enterprises which have redistributed rather than augmented the aggregate wealth of mankind. Instead of purple and fine raiment we are disposed to fancy that sackcloth and ashes might be the most appropriate fashion of the day.

Why, indeed, should we not return to the good old custom of days of fasting and humiliation? The practice may have been wholesome in the main, when it did not mean that every man was lamenting his neighbor's sins. A Liberal would humble himself with great complacency for the shortcomings of a Conservative ministry; and the Conservative would groan over the long arrears of mischief bequeathed by the supremacy of his antagonists. But if for once we could make up our minds to apply the lash to our own backs heartily and sincerely, some good might be done. The press sometimes affects to discharge the duty; but the affectation is not very successful. When its lamentations get beyond mere party squabbling, they are apt to ring hollow. Even the platitudes about modern luxury and over-excitement — the most popular text of the would-be satirist — do not seem to imply sincere indignation so much as a thinly disguised satisfaction in dwelling upon the vicious splendors described. When a man really quarrels with the world and strikes with all his force at its vulnerable points, he soon finds as of old that the world takes him for a madman. We are melancholy just now; but we have not got so far as to admit that our sins are of a deep dye.

Englishmen indeed boast themselves to be grumblers by profession. We confess, it is said, and even exaggerate our own shortcomings. Surely of all our national boasts this is about the emptiest. I have known a sincerely religious person rather confounded by the discovery that somebody had taken in downright earnest his confession that he was a miserable sinner. He was forced to explain with some awkwardness that though, on proper occasions, he admitted the utter vileness of his heart, yet, as a matter of fact, he was not more in the habit of breaking the Ten Commandments than his most respectable