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LECTURE ON THE TIMES.
HE Times, as we say, or the present aspects of our
social state, the Laws, Divinity, Natural Science, Agriculture, Art, Trade, Letters, have their root in an invisible spiritual reality. To appear in these aspects, they must first exist, or have some necessary foundation. Beside all the small reasons we assign, there is a great reason for the existence of every extant fact; a reason which lies grand and immovable, often unsuspected behind it in silence. The Times are the masquerade of the eternities ; trivial to the dull, tokens of noble and majestic agents to the wise; the receptacle in which the Past leaves its history; the quarry out of which the genius of to-day is building up the Future. The Times, -- the nations, manners, institutions, opinions, votes, are to be studied as omens, as sacred leaves, whereon a weighty sense is inscribed, if he have the wit and the love to search it out. Nature itself seems to propound to us this topic, and to invite us to explore the meaning of the conspicuous facts of the day. Everything that is popular, it has been said, deserves the attention of the philosopher : and this for the obvious reason, that although it may not be of any worth in itself, yet it characterizes the people.
Here is very good matter to be handled, if we are skilful; an abundance of important practical questions which it behooves us to understand. Let us examine the pretensions of the attacking and defending parties. Here is this great fact of Conservatism, intrenched in its immense redoubts, with Himmaleh for its front, and Atlas for its flank, and Andes for its rear, and the Atlantic and Pacific seas for its ditches and trenches, which has planted its crosses, and crescents, and stars and stripes, and various signs and badges of possession, over every rood of the planet, and says : ‘I will hold fast; and to whom
I will, will I give ; and whom I will, will I exclude and starve': so says Conservatism; and all the children of men attack the colossus in their youth, and all, or all but a few, bow before it when they are old. A necessity not yet commanded, a negative imposed on the will of man by his condition, a deficiency in his force, is the foundation on which it rests. Let this side be fairly stated. Meantime, on the other part, arises Reform, and offers the sentiment of Love as an overmatch to this material might. I wish to consider well this affirmative side, which has a loftier port and reason than heretofore, which encroaches on the other every day, puts it out of countenance, out of reason, and out of temper, and leaves it nothing but silence and possession.
The fact of aristocracy, with its two weapons of wealth and manners, is as commanding a feature of the nineteenth century, and the American republic, as of old Rome or modern England. The reason and influence of wealth, the aspect of philosophy and religion, and the tendencies which have acquired the name of Transcendentalism in Old and New England ; the aspect of poetry, as the exponent and interpretation of these things; the fuller development and the freer play of Character as 'a social and political agent; — these, and other related topics will in turn come to be considered.
But the subject of the Times is not an abstract question. We talk of the world, but we mean a few men and women. If you speak of the age, you mean your own platoon of people, as Milton and Dante painted in colossal their platoons, and called them Heaven and Hell. In our idea of progress, we do not go out of this personal picture. We do not think the sky will be bluer, or honey sweeter, or our climate more temperate, but only that our relation to our fellows will be simpler and happier. What is the reason to be given for this extreme attraction which persons have for us, but that they are the Age? they are the results of the Past; they are the heralds of the Future. They indicate — these witty, suffering, blushing, intimidating figures of the only race in which there are individuals or changes — how far on the Fate has gone, and what it drives at. As trees make scenery, and constitute the hospitality of the landscape, so persons are the world to persons. A cunning mystery by which the Great Desert of thoughts and of planets takes this engaging form, to bring, as it would seem, its meanings nearer to the mind. Thoughts walk and speak, and look with eyes at me, and transport me into new
and magnificent scenes. These are the pungent instructors who thrill the heart of each of us, and make all other teaching formal and cold. How I follow them with aching heart, with pining desire ! I count myself nothing before them. I would die for them with joy. They can do what they will with me. How they lash us with those tongues ! How they make the tears start, make us blush and turn pale, and lap us in Elysium to soothing dreams, and castles in the air! By tones of triumph ; of dear love; by threats ; by pride that freezes; these have the skill to make the world look bleak and inhospitable, or seem the nest of tenderness and joy. I do not wonder at the miracles which poetry attributes to the music of Orpheus, when I remember what I have experienced from the varied notes of the human voice. They are an incalculable energy which countervails all other forces in nature, because they are the channel of supernatural powers. There is no interest or institution so poor and withered, but if a new strong man could be born into it, he would immediately redeem and replace it. A personal ascendency, — that is the only fact much worth considering. I remember, some years ago, somebody shocked a circle of friends of order here in Boston, who supposed that our people were identified with their religious denominations, by declaring that an eloquent man let him be of what sect soever would be ordained at once in one of our -metropolitan churches. To be sure he would ; and not only in ours, but in any church, mosque, or temple, on the planet; but he must be eloquent, able to supplant our method and classification, by the superior beauty of his own. Every fact we have was brought here by some person ; and there is none that will not change and pass away before a person, whose nature is broader than the person whom the fact in question represents. And so I find the Age walking about in happy and hopeful natures, in strong eyes and pleasant thoughts, and think I read it nearer and truer so, than in the statute-book, or in the investments of capital, which rather celebrate with mournful music the obsequies of the last age. In the brain of a fanatic; in the wild hope of a mountain boy, called by city boys very ignorant, because they do not know what his hope has certainly apprised him shall be; in the love-glance of a girl ; in the hair-splitting conscientiousness of some eccentric person, who has found some new scruple to embarrass himself and his neighbors withal; is to be found that which shall constitute the times to come, more than in the now organized and
accredited oracles. For, whatever is affirmative and now advancing, contains it. I think that only is real, which men love and rejoice in; not what they tolerate, but what they choose ; what they embrace and avow, and not the things which chill, benumb, and terrify them.
And so why not draw for these times a portrait-gallery? Let us paint the painters. Whilst the Daguerreotypist, with camera-obscura and silver plate, begins now to traverse the land, let us set up our Camera also, and let the sun paint the people. Let us paint the agitator, and the man of the old school, and the member of Congress, and the college professor, the formidable editor, the priest, and reformer, the contemplative girl, and the fair aspirant for fashion and opportunities, the woman of the world who has tried and knows; examine how well she knows. Could we indicate the indicators, indicate those who most accurately represent every good and evil tendency of the general mind, in the just order which they take on this canvas of Time ; so that all witnesses should recognize a spiritual law, as each well-known form flitted for a moment across the wall, we should have a series of sketches which would report to the next ages the color and quality of ours.
Certainly, I think, if this were done, there would be much to admire as well as to condemn ; souls of as lofty a port, as any in Greek or Roman fame, might appear; men of great heart, of strong hand, and of persuasive speech; subtle thinkers, and men of wide sympathy, and an apprehension which looks over all history, and everywhere recognizes its own. To be sure, there will be fragments and hints of men, more than enough : bloated promises, which end in nothing or little. And then, truly great men, but with some defect in their composition, which neutralizes their whole force.
Here is a general without a command, a Damascus blade, such as you may search through nature in vain to parallel, laid up on the shelf in some village to rust and ruin. And how many seem not quite available for that idea which they represent ! Now and then comes a bolder spirit, I should rather say, a more surrendered soul, more informed and led by God, which is much in advance of the rest, quite beyond their sympathy, but predicts what shall soon be the general fulness; as when we stand by the sea-shore, whilst the tide is coming in, a wave comes up the beach far higher than any foregoing one, and recedes; and for a long while none comes up to that mark; but after some time the whole sea is there and beyond it.