Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/October 1873/Secular Prophecy


ALTHOUGH prophecy is usually supposed to be the special gift of inspiration, nothing comes more glibly from secular pens. Half of the leading articles in the daily newspapers are more or less disguised predictions. The prophecies of the Times are more numerous, more confident, and more explicit, than those of Jeremiah or Isaiah. "Secular Prophecy fulfilled" would be a good title for a book written after the model of those old and half-educated divines who zealously looked through Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and the Apocalypse, for shadowy hints that Hildebrand would enforce celibacy on the clergy of the Latin Church; that Luther would cut up the Christianity of the "West into two sections; that Cromwell would sign the death-warrant of Charles I.; and that the Stuarts would become wanderers over the face of the earth. There are still, we believe, devout, mystical, and studious sectaries, who find such events as the disestablishment of the Irish Church and the meeting of the Vatican Council plainly foretold in the book of Revelation. They also find Mr. Gladstone's name written in letters of fire by inspired pens that left their record while the captivity of Babylon was a recent memory, or while Nero was the scourge of the Church. Nay, Dr. Cumming, who is as different from those mystical interpreters as a smart Yankee trader is from Parson Adams, sees that the Prophet Daniel and St. John had a still more minute acquaintance with the home and Continental politics of these latter days. But "Secular Prophecy fulfilled" would show a much more wonderful series of glimpses into the future than we find in the interpretations of Dr. Cumming, and it would certainly bring together a strange set of soothsayers. Arthur Young, Lord Chesterfield, and William Cobbett, are not exactly the kind of men whom we should expect to find among the prophets. Arthur Young was a shrewd traveller, with a keen eye for leading facts, and a remarkable power of describing what he saw in plain, homely words. Chesterfield was a literary and philosophical dandy, who, richly furnished with the small coin of wisdom, and fearing nothing so much as indecorum, would have been a great teacher if the earth had been a drawing-room. Cobbett was a coarse, rough English farmer, with an extraordinary power of reasoning at the dictate of his prejudices, and with such a faculty of writing racy, vigorous English as excites the admiration and the despair of scholars. It seems almost ludicrous to speak of such men as prophets. And yet Arthur Young foretold the coming of the French Revolution at a time when the foremost men of France did not dream that the greatest of political convulsions was soon to lay low the proudest of monarchies. And the dandified morality of Lord Chesterfield did not prevent him from making a similar prediction. Cobbett made a guess which was still more notable; for, at the beginning of the present century, he foretold the secession of the Southern States. But the most remarkable of all the secular prophets who have spoken to our time is Heine. He might seem indeed to have been a living irony on the very name of prophet, for he read backward all the sanctities of religion and all the commands of the moral law. Essentially a humorist, to whom life seemed now the saddest of mysteries, and now the most laughable of jokes, he made sport of every thing that he touched. His most fervid English devotee, Mr. Matthew Arnold, is forced to admit that he was profoundly disrespectable. He quarrelled with his best friends for frivolously petty reasons, and he repaid their kindness by writing lampoons which are masterpieces at once of literary skill and of malignity. Neither Voltaire nor Pope scattered calumnies with such a lack of scruple, and Byron himself was not a more persistent or more systematic voluptuary. Yet Heine was so true a prophet that his predictions might have been accounted the work of inspiration if he had been as famed for piety or purity as he was notorious for irreligion and profligacy. He predicted that Germany and France would fight, and that France would be utterly put down. He predicted that the line of fortifications which M. Thiers was then building round Paris would draw to the capital a great hostile army, and that they would crush the city as if they were a contracting iron shroud. He predicted that the Communists would some day get the upper hand in Paris, that they would strike in a spirit of fiendish rage at the statues, the beautiful buildings, and all the other tangible marks of the civilization which they sought to destroy; that they would throw down the Vendôme Column in their hate of the man who had made France the foe of every other people; and that they would further show their execration for his memory by taking his ashes from the Invalides and flinging them into the Seine. All these predictions, save the last, have been fulfilled to the letter, and it would need a bolder prophet than even Heine himself to say that the last will not be verified also. For nothing is more remarkable in France than the success with which the International is teaching the artisans that the first as well as the third Napoleon was the worst enemy of their class. Although they still regard his achievements with pride, they fervently believe that he was the foe of their order, and the acts of the Commune showed their eagerness to insult his name. And there may be another Commune. Intrepid prophets would say that there certainly will be another. If that should happen, it is quite possible that the fanatics of the International may fling the ashes of the great soldier into the Seine to mark their abhorrence of military glory.

Prevost-Paradol was as different from Heine as a gifted voluptuary can be from a polished, fastidious, and decorous gentleman. Yet the refined, reserved, satirical Orleanist, who seemed to be uncomfortable when his hands were not encased in kid gloves, and who was a master of all the literary resources of innuendo, would be as much out of place among the Hebrew prophets as Heine himself. He would find a place, nevertheless, in "Secular Prophecy fulfilled," by reason of the startling exactness with which he foretold the outbreak of the war between his own country and Germany. In a passage which promises to become classic, he said that the two nations were like two trains which, starting from opposite points, and placed on the same line of rails, were driven toward each other at full speed. There must be a collision. The only doubt was, where it would happen, and when, and with what results. De Tocqueville better fulfilled the traditionary idea of a prophet, and there is a startling accuracy in some of the predictions as to the future of France which he flung forth in talking with his friends, and of which we find a partial record in the journal of Mr. Nassau Senior. Eighteen years before the fall of the empire, he predicted that it would wreck itself "in some extravagant foreign enterprise." "War," he added, "would assuredly be its death, but its death would perhaps cost dear." M. Renan also aspires to a place among the prophets, and he has made a prediction which may be a subject of some curiosity when the next pope shall be elected. The Church of Rome will not, he says, be split up by disputes about doctrine. But he does look for a schism, and it will come, he thinks, when some papal election shall be deemed invalid; when there shall be two competing pontiffs, and Europe shall see a renewal of the strife between Rome and Avignon.

It may be said, no doubt, that the verified predictions which we have cited are only stray hits; that the oracles make still more remarkable misses; and that, since guesses about the future are shot off every hour of the day, it would be a marvel if the bull's-eye were not struck sometimes. Such a theory might suffice to account for the hits, if the prophecies were let off in the dark and at random; but that is not the case. It is easy to trace the path along which the mind of Heine or De Tocqueville travelled to the results of the future, and their predictions betray nothing more wonderful than a rare power of drawing correct inferences from confused facts. A set of general rules might be laid down as a guide to prophecy. In the first place, we might give the negative caution that the analogy of past events is misleading, because the same set of conditions does not appear at two different times, and an almost unseen element might suffice to determine an all-important event. Forgetting this fact, Archbishop Manning has ventured into the field of prophecy with the argument that Catholics should not be made uneasy because the pope has lost his temporal power, for they should remember that he has again and again suffered worse calamities, and has then won back all his old authority. Between 1378 and 1418 the Church witnessed the scandal of a schism, in which there were rival popes, and in which Home and Avignon competed for the mastery. That calamity is worse than any which has come to the Church in our days, yet the Papacy regained its old power and glory. So late as within the present century the temporal power was reduced to nullity by the first Napoleon, and Pius IX. himself had to flee from Rome in the beginning of his reign. Why, then, should not the robber-band of Victor Emmanuel be paralyzed in turn, and the Papacy once more regain its old splendor? Not being ambitious to play the part of prophets, we do not undertake to say whether the Papacy will or will not again climb or be flung into its ancient place, but it is not the less certain that Archbishop Manning's prophecy is a conspicuous example of a false inference. When he argues that a pope in the nineteenth century will again be the temporal ruler of Rome because a pope triumphed over the schism of Avignon in the fifteenth, he forgets that the lapse of centuries has wrought a vast change of conditions. At the end of the fourteenth century a keen onlooker, a Heine or a De Tocqueville, might have confidently foretold that a pope of unquestioned authority would soon govern the historic city of the Papacy, because the political and the social interests of Europe, no less than the piety or superstition of the times, required that the pope should be powerful and free. The current of the age, if we may use the philosophical slang, was running from Avignon to Rome in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and now the current of the age is not less distinctly running against the temporal power. The very reasons which would have led a prophet in 1400 to predict that Rome would again be the unquestioned seat of the Papacy would lead the same soothsayer to affirm in 1873 that the temporal power has been shattered forever.

It is in general causes that we find the guide of prophecy. Mr. Buckle attached so much importance to the physical conditions of a country, the food of a people, the air they breathe, the occupations which they are forced to follow, and the habits of thought which they display, that he undertook to tell the end of a nation from the beginning. Spain was no mystery to him when he remembered that it had originally been a country of volcanoes; that the people had consequently been filled with a dread of the unseen and inscrutable power which reveals itself in convulsions of the earth; that their diseased fear of shadowy influences made them resent the teachings of science, and hence left them an easy prey to the Holy Office and Ignatius Loyola when Luther, Calvin, and Zwingle, drew away from sacerdotalism all the Christianity of Northern Europe. There can be no doubt that Buckle's theory did rest on a basis of truth, and that it erred simply by trying to account for every thing. In fact, it is not specially his doctrine, but simply the rigid and systematized application of a principle which is as old as speculative curiosity. We apply it every day of our lives. If a family go into a badly-drained house, we say the chances are that they will have typhus, diarrhœa, or cholera. If a rich and foolish young man bets largely on the turf, the probability is that he will be ruined. And the statistician comes to help us with a set of tables which throw uncomfortable light on the mechanical character of those mental and moral processes which might seem to be determined by the unprompted bidding of our own wills. Mr. Buckle was no doubt beguiled by a mere dream when he fancied that we could account for every turn and winding in the history of a country if we had only a large knowledge of its general conditions, such as the temperature of the land, the qualities of the soil, the food of the people, and their relations to their neighbors. He paid too little heed to subtle qualities of race, and he did not make sufficient allowance for the disturbing force of men gifted with extraordinary power of brain and will. Still it is a mere truism that the more correctly and fully we know the general condition of a country, the more does mystery vanish from its history, and the successive events tend to take their place in orderly sequence.

It is impossible, however, to prophesy by rule, and such system-mongers as Mr. Buckle would be the most treacherous of all oracles. Their hard and fast canons will not bend into the subtle crevices of human life. Men who are so ostentatiously logical that they cannot do a bit of thinking without the aid of a huge apparatus of sharply-cut principles always lack a keen scent for truth. They blunder by rule when less showy people find their way by mother-wit. Hence they are the worst of all prophets. It was not by counting up how many things tell in one way, and how many tell in another, that Heine and De Tocqueville were able to guess correctly what was coming, but by watching the chief currents of the age, or, as more homely folk would say, by finding out which way the wind was blowing. They had to deeide which among many social, religious, or political forces were the strongest, and which would be the most lasting. They had to give a correct decision as to the stability of particular institutions and the strength of popular passions. General rules could not be of much avail, and they had to rely on their knowledge of human nature, their acquaintance with the forces which have been at work in history, and their own sagacity. Most likely Heine could not have given such an explanation of the grounds on which he made his predictions as would have satisfied any average jury of historical students. But he could have said that he knew the working-men of Paris; that his power of poetic sympathy enabled him to see how their minds veered toward socialism, and be also knew what forces were on the side of order; and that a mental comparison of the two made him look with certainty to a ferocious outbreak of democratic passion. Being thus sure that the storm would come, he had next to ask himself which points the lightning would strike, and he looked for the most prominent symbols of kingship, wealth, refinement, and military glory. The Tuileries would be a mark for the fury of the mob, because that was the palace of the man who had destroyed the populace. The public offices must go, because they represented what the bourgeois called order and the workmen called tyranny. The Louvre must go, for the mere sake of maddening rich people who took a delight in art. And the Vendôme Column must go, because it glorified a man who was the incarnation of the war-spirit, and who was consequently the worst foe of the working-classes. To a select committee of the House of Commons such reasons would have seemed the dreams of a moon-struck visionary, and they certainly did not admit of being logically defended. No prophecy does. The power of predicting events is the power of guessing, and those guess best who are least dependent on rules, and most gifted with the mother-wit which works with the quietude and unconsciousness of instinct.—Saturday Review.