Mr. Fiske's Essays

THE last thing wo read in a book is apt to be the motto upon its title-page, and it is only after an attentive perusal of Mr. John Fiske’s Darwinism and other Essays that one can fully appreciate the appropriateness of the passage from Spinoza, by which the collection is prefaced: —

“ Who studies thus to regulate his affections and appetites by the sole love of freedom, he will endeavor to fathom effects and their causes, and to fill his mind with the joy arising from a right understanding of the same.”

If ever there was a spirit thoroughly enlightened and invigorated by the “joy of right understanding,” it is that of the author of these pieces. Even the reader catches something of his intellectual buoyancy, and is thus carried almost lightly through discussions which would be hard and dry in the hands of a less animated writer. If a philosopher is also to be a teacher, this is one of the best gifts he can possibly have, as well as one of the rarest.

Mr. Fiske is a thorough-going Darwinian, and his first essay is but a summary of a large variety of experiments and discoveries, all tending toward the scientific verification of the now familiar doctrine of the development of species by natural selection. In the second, third, and fourth essays, the objections of Mivart, Büchner, and Bateman to Mr. Darwin’s hypothesis are examined and set aside, more or less respectfully, but always with the same open and charming good-humor which seems a necessary concomitant of Mr. Fiske’s gaudium cognitionis. The paper entitled A Crumb for the “ Modern Symposium ” admirably supplements these three. No less confident and serene than his acceptance of the utmost logical results of recent scientific discovery is Mr. Fiske’s assurance that the foundations of spiritual truth, so called, cannot possibly be shaken thereby. He takes, indeed, the only tenable ground, namely, that the “ things of the spirit,” however glorious and essential, are forever undiscoverable by the reason, and so that the two orders of truth cannot possibly conflict. It is difficult to see how any one who thinks on these matters at all can avoid coming to the same conclusion; but the peculiarity of the author of those essays is that he is simply content therewith, while of the majority it seems but to aggravate the craving and unrest. The difference between the cheerful and collected enunciations of Mr. Fiske and the impassioned sadness and difficult resignation of Mr. Frederic Harrison and some others of the authors of A Modern Symposium is very like the difference between the two best known of the Stoics, — between Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. The mournful magnanimity of the emperor is adorable, his gentle remoteness and dignified passivity — “ One may live well even in a palace” — are very impressive. To be in the world, but not of it, and soon, soon to be quit of it,—such is the mood, hardly distinguishable from the pietistic, and only too congenial to many modern minds, which is caught from the spiritual aristocrats of all time. But the lusty courage of the lowly Greek braces the nerves and pricks to action : “ Boldly make a desperate push, man, as the saying is, for prosperity, for freedom, for magnanimity. Lift up your head at last, as free from slavery. Dare to look up to God and say, Make use of me for the future as thou wilt. I am of the same mind. I am equal with thee.” The prince was all his life-time in bondage to sadness ; the slave was emancipated and glad. And it would hardly be possible to find, outside the Hand-Book of Epictetus, a passage more strikingly akin to his own sane and sunny spirit than Mr. Fiske’s last word on the Modern Symposium, which we quote almost entire for this and the additional reason that it makes a more direct appeal than any other in his book to the moral sense of the reader : —

“ For all that physiological psychology has achieved, there is no more ground for doubt as to a future life to-day than there was in the time of Descartes. Whatever grounds of belief were really valid then are equally valid now. The belief has never been one which could be maintained on scientific grounds. . . . The question is simply one which science cannot touch. In the future, as in the past, I have no doubt it will be provisionally answered in different ways by different minds, on an estimate of what is called ‘moral probability,’ just as we see it diversely answered in the Modern Symposium. For my own part, I should be much better satisfied with an affirmative answer, as affording perhaps some unforeseen solution to the general mystery of life. But there is one thing which every true philosopher ought to dread even more than the prospect of annihilation, and that is the unpardonable sin of letting preference tamper with his judgment. I have no sympathy with those who stigmatize the hope of immortal life as selfish and degrading, and with Mr. Harrison’s proffered substitute I confess I have no patience whatever. This travesty of Christianity by positivism seems to me, as it does to Professor Huxley, a very sorry business. On the other hand, I cannot agree with those who consider a dogmatic belief in another life essential to the proper discharge of our duty in this. Though we may not know what is to come hereafter, we have, at any rate, all the means of knowledge requisite for making our present lives pure and beautiful. It was Jehovah’s cherished servant who declared in Holy Writ that his faith was stronger than death. There is something overwhelming in the thought that all our rich stores of spiritual acquisition may, at any moment, perish with us. But the wise man will cheerfully order his life, undaunted by the metaphysical snares that beset him, learning and learning afresh, as if all eternity lay before him ; battling steadfastly for the right, as if this day were his last. ‘ Disce ut semper victurus, vive ut cras moriturus.’ ”

Extremely able and interesting for quite other than didactic reasons are Mr. Fiske’s papers on the late Chauncy Wright, on the Races of the Danube, and on the Fallacies of Mr. Buckle. Warm, personal admiration and acute, critical discernment could not well be blended in finer proportions than in the article on the lamented Mr. Wright. Whichever way the hackneyed nil-demortuis motto be read, whether it be taken that we are to praise the dead without stint, or say nothing at all if we cannot so praise them, it is most nobly superseded by the fond and fearless candor of a memorial like Mr. Fiske’s. He loved Mr. Wright with that rare love which passes so far in generosity the ordinary love of women. He feels his loss to letters an irremediable one, but he thinks that he was too vague in some of his speculative views, and wholly mistaken in others, and he distinctly says so. Perhaps the most valuable passage in the whole book, philosophically, is that in which, still led by the “ sole love of freedom,” he criticises the attitude both of Mr. Wright and of John Stuart Mill toward the philosophy of Herbert Spencer, and shows the opposite ways in which they appear to him to have misapprehended Mr. Spencer’s meaning. His genuine and irrepressible tenderness for either man increases many fold the value of his strictures. On Mr. Mill he makes the extremely lucid and sympathetic observation, which goes so far toward explaining the ascetic charm of that great writer and the mysterious popularity of his most difficult discussions, that there were in his mind not only immense enthusiasms, but even a slight tinge of mysticism, and that the wonderful equipoise of that mind did not come by nature altogether, but was in great part the result of consummate training and unremitting watchfulness over self. On the other hand, there is one favorite and highly characteristic expression in the conversation of Mr. Wright, “cosmical weather,” which he quotes over and over again with the most affectionate iteration, and praises for its point and pregnancy in a manner which appears slightly exaggerated to one for whom it has not the charm of vividly recalling the presence of its author. For the phrase, after all, is only an image, — novel and striking indeed, but one which, as Mr. Fiske himself half allows, will not stand, for aptness, the test of a very searching scrutiny.

The essay on the Races of the Danube is so clear and orderly an account of the origin, migrations, and mutations of the different races now living on the continent of Europe that it is the reader’s own fault if it does not make the subject permanently plainer to his mind ; and it forcibly suggests the idea that Mr. Fiske has qualities of mind almost unused hitherto which would make him an exceptionally valuable writer of history.

The careful article on the Fallacies of Mr. Buckle has one aspect more remarkable than all the rest. It was written and published when the history of civilization was new, — that is to say when the writer was nineteen years of age; and the years — almost nineteen more — which have elapsed since then have rather confirmed than detracted from its value as a piece of criticism.

The judgment of posterity on the most ambitious book of its generation, and one of the most bewildering, was actually anticipated by a stripling, and its final rank assigned with singular fairness and precision. Scarcely even in the style is there a trace of immaturity, unless it be in a certain too conscious and cumbrous application to Mr. Buckle’s loose arguments of the formal tests of logic, — a slight parade of ignoratio elenchi and petitio principii, like the complacency of a cadet in his uniform. The appendix to the critique on Mr. Buckle, which was written fifteen years later, on the appearance of Mr. Stuart Glennie’s reminiscences, has greater simplicity of manner than the original piece, and not a whit less of ardor, vivacity, generosity, or any of the other engaging qualities which we instinctively associate with youth, and admire most in it. The writer has reviewed his precocious effort, and knows now that it was good ; wherefore, in all simplicity and modesty, he offers it unchanged to his new public, along with his own latest reflections on the same theme.

A like boyish simplicity of spirit and carelessness of effect seem to have dictated the addition to the graver and more elaborate papers in this collection of a few remarks on Table-Tipping and the supposed nature of Inspiration, and a longer essay on the management of large libraries, full of excellent practical suggestions based on the author’s experience at Harvard. If Mr. Fiske had been in the least over-scrupulous about the symmetry and dignity of his book, he would have left these minor papers out, but it is very agreeably characteristic of him to have admitted them.

  1. Darwinism and other Essays. By JOHN FISKE, M. A., LL. B. London and New York: Macmillan & Co. 1879.