Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/September 1899/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


VOLTAIRE'S Candide is not a book that can be recommended for general reading; yet it contains perhaps as good a moral as could easily be found in a wide range of books aiming more distinctly at edification. The hero, after many vicissitudes and copious experience of the deceitfulness of riches and the miseries of an ill-regulated life, made the blessed discovery that peace and health and independence were to be obtained by the industrious cultivation of a small piece of ground. He had a friend called Martin who associated himself with him in his agricultural labors, but who had rather a fine talent for discussing abstract questions. Candide would listen to him for a while, but never allowed him to get very far without breaking in with the observation, "Mais surtout il faut cultiver notre jardin" ("But above everything else we must cultivate our garden"). Here was safety, here was balm for painful recollections, here was about the best that the world had it in its power to give; and Candide, chastised by misfortune, wanted to stick to that.

This is an age of copious and unending discussion of social and political problems. Discussion is well in its way; but perhaps the problems would not be so acute if there was less discussion and more cultivating of gardens. It may indeed be said, with no small degree of plausibility, that the greed to be rich, the unwillingness, so to speak, to cultivate a garden which only promises a moderate reward, is at the bottom of a large part of our troubles. Wisdom cries aloud and tells the world that happiness is not to be found in riches; but the cry is little heeded. The whole lesson of higher education is that happiness springs from within and not from without; but thousands take what they can of the higher education while declining the lesson. Science unlocks a world of beauty and wonder, and offers to the mind a constant succession of interesting subjects of contemplation; but thousands again ask nothing of science except to show them the way to wealth. Precisely similar in a multitude of cases is the demand made of art and literature. It is well-nigh a century since Wordsworth lamented the decay of "plain living and high thinking." Have the succeeding years brought any improvement in this respect? It is much to be feared they have not. Wealth is, if possible, more than ever the ideal of society, and plain living is terribly at a discount.

We believe, however, that in the deliberate choice of plain living by an influential portion of society there lies a greater potency of social reform than in all the schemes of socialistic reconstruction. The most hurtful thing in the world to-day is the false glamour of wealth. It is against this evil influence that we want an insurrection, not against capital as such. Weaken the fascination of wealth, and, in the same degree that you do so, you increase the moral responsibility of those who are its possessors. The luxury of the present age has run to a dangerous extreme. Advice in such a matter may seem idle, but the discovery that Candide made is one that the world at large must make some day. True happiness is-the natural accompaniment of honest industry and moderate living. Such conditions make high thinking possible, and give a savor to all enjoyments. There have been times when men, to save their souls, would go forth into the wilderness or the desert. Such sacrifices are not needed in the present day; there is a very respectable measure of salvation to be won in cultivating a garden.


The thought of the age has now reached a point of development at which it has become almost impossible for any man of trained intellect to say that he receives on authority pure and simple any statement which admits or should admit of direct verification—for example, any statement dealing with matters of a historical or scientific character. This, if we mistake not, is the true secret of the troubles over doctrinal questions which have lately broken out in more than one division of the Christian Church. It is not so much that there has been a revolt against doctrines as such, as that a need is felt by thinking and cultivated men to seek for higher grounds of belief than those hitherto deemed sufficient. This has led to a certain generalization of belief, if we may so call it, which to less cultivated minds looks almost like an abandonment of the most essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Such a view of the matter, however, we hold to be entirely erroneous. The men we are thinking of—and Dr. Briggs and Bishop Potter may be taken as conspicuous examples—have the interests of religion and of their fellowmen at heart. They do not wish to force upon others a mode of looking at religious questions for which they are not prepared; but, for their own part, they find it necessary to restate the articles of their religious faith in terms which do not absolutely conflict with the principles of reason. This rectification of terms is imposed in part by the conditions of thought in the modern world, but to an equal extent at least by what may be called an inward expansion of the doctrines themselves. Who that holds any truth, scientific or other, does not feel impelled to seek for it continually a wider interpretation and application? Not otherwise is it, we hold, with religious doctrines; they have their own law of growth and development, and he who would arrest the process condemns them to atrophy and decay.

It is charged against both the scholars we have mentioned that they speak of the Bible as literature, and say that in determining its meaning we must keep in view the same class of considerations which would guide us in dealing with other literary monuments. There is nothing in this which need alarm any thoughtful person. It would be doing less than justice to the Bible to deny that many parts of it are literature of a very high order; and it would be doing less than justice to our own intellects to deny that the conception of the Bible as literature is a great help to its correct interpretation. Religion, in the view of such men as we have mentioned, does not depend upon the meaning given to a text or the acceptance or rejection of any specific statement of fact. There is nothing specially "religious" in believing that the Epistle to the Hebrews was written by St. Paul, or that the adventures of Jonah were precisely as described in the book that bears his name. Grant that the organ of religious apprehension is faith, yet each age must settle for itself the question as to what is the proper scope of faith and what of reason. In the present day reason can deal with many things which at one time were thought to be entirely within the domain of faith, and it would be rash to say that the frontier has even yet received its final rectification. If we rightly understand the position of Dr. Briggs and Bishop Potter, they hold that religion is essentially an attitude of mind and heart, a seeing of the invisible, an instinctive recognition of a supreme moral authority, a sense that every human being is called to nothing less than holiness of life. They reverence the Scriptures because in them, as in no other body of writings in the world, the realities of religion are both expressed and implied. They do not demand of the Bible perfect agreement with either scientific or historic truth; they are content if they find in it the spiritual basis of human life, a scheme of thought that links the individual human being with an infinite origin and an infinite destiny. From their standpoint the value of the Bible for the highest moral purposes would in no way be increased if every word in it which touches on scientific or historical questions had the seal of all the academies in the Old World and the New.

It is not a difficult thing, nor does it require much wisdom, to harry a man whose independent thinking and moral earnestness have forced him to take a different attitude toward some great question from that which is adopted by the multitude. It is easy to present his views in an invidious light, but a more useful task would be to show that all that is essential and precious in religious belief can exist as well in a philosophical as in a popular form. With such a thesis it may not be quite so easy to "score," but it is a pity when the standards of the reporters' room invade the desk of the literary or theological editor. It is upon such men as we have mentioned, men of competent scolarship and earnest spirit, that the task is laid of purifying and liberating the religious consciousness of the age; and we do not hesitate to say that when, from the vantage height of modern knowledge, they affirm with deep conviction the indestructibleness of the religious sentiment and the everlasting reality of its object, they render a service which, from a religious point of view, can not be overestimated.