A LOITERER who approached Concord during the progress of the summer school there reported the woods full of enthusiastic persons, some of whom smothered their mental fervor in linen dusters, inquiring for the shortest way to the new oracle. One of them, who got nearer than the rest to the shrine, paused at a little distance, startled by the sound of a resonant and pathetic voice from within the Hillside Chapel. The words which this voice bore to his ear were these: “Living is flying — living is flying . . . wings . . . Paradise.” And instantly he flew—aivay from the chapel, to seek his Paradise elsewhere.
But this, I fear, is a frivolous anecdote. It is the custom of the world to laugh at devout pilgrims who set out avowedly to search for truth. Yet I sometimes fancy that when the world does this, imagining that it has a right to pity the folly or innocent faith of such a quest, it is unconsciously laughing at its own expense, — jeering at its own doubting and disheartened state.
However this may be, it is always amazingly interested in that which it so affects to look down upon. So when, a year and a half ago, a small body of men and women proposed to discuss philosophy in a certain old brown house standing in a roadside orchard of Concord, the lesser in size, but greater in history, the scoffers became active at once. This year they were more respectful, and some even came to a session or two ; but no one could fairly pronounce on the school from such a test. It was necessary to attend one or two courses, and listen to the conversation — often the more profitable exercise — which followed each monologue. And after one had done that, — what then ? If his impression proved favorable, how should he convey the reasons thereof to the outer world ? Clearly, this cannot he done by formal proof. What I have got by a process of infiltration from the speech of a number of men and women I can give out again only in the same gradual way that it entered, unless I could set down, word for word, the whole utterance, with an account of all the original conditions and associations.
But it is not every one living on a rural highway who can boast of so illustrious a neighbor as a school of philosophy ; and, despite the obstacles to a good understanding, the writer of this may be pardoned for wishing to fulfill the duties of such neighborhood by trying in a few words to describe what took place beyond some spruces and larches, a few rods from the spot where these lines are penned.
Not much can be shown in the form of concrete results, perhaps. The benefit got from the school was, for most of us, one of healthy stimulation and nutriment, rather than external accumulation. One can tell, nevertheless, how the process went on. Not only the cold, larger world, but also the village itself, was skeptical at first. For the Concord average does not differ greatly from the averages of other New England towns, except in greater keenness of a general practical intelligence, and a livelier talent for enjoying life in its wonted pastimes, or through the forms of art and literature. Yet it was natural that a scheme of this sort should originate in Concord, because the place has had in it so much more than the merely average. High thinking is as native to the soil as thrifty shrewdness. Next to Mr. Alcott’s Orchard House stands the house of one of the best farmers in Massachusetts, whose land also skirts the highway opposite. Hens from the farm-land, seeking, perhaps, a grain of heavenly mustard-seed, sometimes invaded the apple-bowered slope on which the school rested ; but the owner of the hens never came. And rightly enough ; for he had his own business to attend to, and the thinkers had theirs. They kept apart in obedience to the same law which aje pointed that on one side of the turnpike should grow asparagus and prize-roses, and on the other pitch-pines and philosophy.
But this summer, when in spring a little edifice of butter-colored boards was seen growing up into peak and porch, on the site of an old arbor on the grassy terrace, and expressly designed with reference to being bedecked by a grapevine that grew there, the derisive tone had somewhat subsided. This was not because the discussions of the previous summer had convinced the doubters, nor were they overawed by the modest building ; but it was known that the school was a success, that it had doubled its membership, and that every boardingplace in the village had more applications than it could satisfy. Indeed, many of the inhabitants, who preferred privacy, admitted hospitably the perplexed pilgrims who could not find lodging ; and it is perhaps an evidence of American adaptability and good-nature that in this relation some pleasant acquaintances were formed. At all events, the community worked willingly, now, to increase the success of the thriving experiment ; although nearly every one, both in and out of the school, indulged in some good-humored laughter at sundry amusing things connected with it. Perhaps the most unremittingly serious person of all concerned was the proprietor of the hack-line which conveyed the students to and from the meeting-place, and did a thriving business. Mingled with all the sincerity and keen interest which others felt was more or less of the holiday picnic mood.
Small was the audience at the opening session, and consisted mainly of women. They came very simply, in prints and ginghams, — unaffected and womanly women ; seated themselves on the unpainted, hard-backed chairs that were ranged about the half-finished interior ; and listened with quiet rapture to the first strains of enthusiasm and eloquence. By and by, as the attendance swelled, the number of men increased, and the dress of the ladies took on a gayer and haughtier aspect. The fresh water-lilies that stood sometimes on the lecturer’s desk were responded to by the artificial ones that bloomed upon a young girl’s bonnet. Even a few diamonds sparkled in the chilly light of pure reason; and when the day arrived for a discourse by Mrs. Julia Ward Howe on Modern Society, an almost worldly air of fashion pervaded the unpretentious room. Contrary to the canons of the scoffer, these ladies were not lean nor unprepossessing, nor in the technical sense strongminded. Some were young and pretty ; others, robust matrons ; a few, far advanced in years ; and some looked worn and thin from too much care. Among them were teachers and clerks, the wives of professional or business men, or ladies of leisure. The male listeners embraced general students, recent college graduates, journalists, and teachers. One or two had read philosophy in the remote West or South, and came for scholarly companionship ; and now and then a serene-faced man of business would drop in on occasion of some literary theme, for relaxation. Of wild-eyed or shaggy theorists, looking permanently disconcerted at something they had discovered about life, there were infrequent examples. The school reserves for a future of larger prosperity, if ever, the creation of a special long-haired department, where these can dilate without harm. But one day there came a poet, whose name and work are known on both sides of the Atlantic, and lavished generous praises on the budding academy.
“ What is going on in that small building,” he said, vehemently, as we walked away under the lindens behind Orchard House and the chapel, “ is the most wonderful thing in the world at this moment, — especially that it should he going on in America. If it is well managed and lasts a few years, it ought to prove the germ of the greatest modern school of philosophy ! ”
A vigorous exaltation arose from the first gatherings, when all the congregated brains were unjaded, which made this prophecy seem not very extravagant, even if certain injudicious tendencies afterward displayed would, unless strictly pruned, make it unjustifiable. Should the school broaden into a field for wide discussion, where every philosophy worthy of the name could be properly set forth and courteously combated by those representing other systems, its uses would he as admirable as novel. In two days the auditors seemed to live a week, so crowded was that brief space with thoughts of infinitude, with large reasoning, noble sentiments, and vital suggestions. All events other than the present or the coming lecture shrank, for many, into a belittling perspective : the presidential campaign, the Eastern Question, and the rejoicings of the French republic over its birthday faded, when compared with the verities with which the school was busy. And when bundles of an evening paper, with daily accounts of the proceedings, were brought by a villager, who combines the occupations of antiquarian and newsdealer, — the past and the present, — and his hastening figure was seen retreating from our porch to the green slopes of the lower world, then, in truth, it was easy to fancy it the figure of Time himself, forced to withdraw, after being eliminated by that science of the mind which transcends all mundane seasons. This mood made it peculiarly fascinating to sit there and watch the misty light among the pine-tops without, or the upward sweep of the grassy hill close by the northern windows ; and to look out on other sides at the graceful drooping of apple-boughs loaded with small green fruit, and the leaves of grape-vines that spread larger, week by week; while words of inspiration blended with an occasional creaking call from the blue-jays in the woods, or the random note of a robin. The evening sessions, also, had an attractiveness of their own. The kerosene had been forgotten, the first night, and for a few moments it seemed possible, as the twilight deepened, that spiritual illumination would be the sole dependence. But, after that, the lamps of the wise virgins could not have outshone those in the chapel fixtures. With a cool breeze streaming in at open windows, where fine netting repelled the attacks of the pessimistic mosquito, the audience sat with ears intent and hungry note-books. Then, on breaking up, they passed out, under lanterns hung by the door or from a fruit-tree close by, into the stardark, carrying with them fragments enough for discussion all the way on the mile-long stretch of grass-bordered sidewalk to the village centre.
From an outline of speculative philosophy to a close scrutiny of Platonic doctrines; from these to a discussion of Shakespeare’s “content,” or, as some called it, “ rationalizing Shakespeare,” or to a rambling, lamp-lit disquisition on one of the mystics, — these were some of the transitions and choices afforded. Then, again, the philosophy of history, the personality of God, literary art, Hawthorne and Thoreau, were among the themes ; and one lecturer showed that the sublime aud beautiful might be as full of bones as a shad. The intellectual fervor spread ; large parties were held at private houses for conversation on a fixed subject. People met in companies, of afternoons between lectures, to read each other original poems and essays ; to debate a tough point in Kant; to hear about Persian poetry, Margaret Fuller, and Primeval Man.
“ The hot weather is a good discipline,” one of the younger men had said at the beginning of the term. “ It calls our patience into play and makes us receptive to thought.”
But even he was obliged to descend from this sublimity of sacrilice. He acknowledged that there had not been enough of the discipline to last. Rumors also filled the air that where the philosophers were thickest in the boarding-houses they had begun to fall sick. For, in addition to the morning and evening sessions, each more than two hours long, and the miscellaneous meetings, they had taken dialectics three times a day with their meals. What wonder that some of them sought relief in the characteristic water-parties of Concord, or even in the poor-children’s picnics at Walden!
The lecturers themselves faltered, at times. Though acting harmoniously on a general theistic basis, in some cases they disagreed sharply, and the gallant amiability which they maintained must have undermined their strength. Then, too, there were hard-headed opponents among the auditors, to whom the spectacle of Herbert Spencer falling in ruins regularly, every forty-eight hours, was almost more than they could bear ; and the surcharged electricity of their usually silent grief may have had an oppressive effect on the readers, who sometimes showed a slight subjective disinclination to answer questions satisfactorily. The mystics and the logicians were of course indirectly at war; but the logicians generally got the best of it. This was not much regretted, apparently ; in particular after the chief of the mystics had made a speech, which, without any desire but that of accuracy in the recording, may be set down as very nearly like this : —
“ We cannot think annihilation. When I think of myself as nothing, I prove that I am something. If I say I am, I am really is-ing. This is the power by which we thing things. I who am, or is-ing I, think this that other somewhat. The thing must he what I think or thing it. In other words, 1 think my thing, and that things things.”
The Hegelian’s reasoning—technical and abstruse, but delicately poised and running noiselessly, like those huge steam-engines which accomplish such stupendous motions with such smooth, limber might — produced no such confusing effect, even on uninstructed ears. To those who did not understand him, it was like watching a man who bends his head to listen to some interior or mysteriously hidden music, whence they could see that he caught a perfect harmony, even though they could not hear it. Those who did understand marveled at the intricate workmanship of the vast cage of thought he had constructed, after once entering which there is no hope of escape except into the infinite and the belief in a personal God. Hegelianism, we are told by the young apostles of recentness, is already outgrown ; but this may be like the idea of the little elated bird on a cathedral spire, that he is a good deal more important than the cathedral, because he can perch on it.
As for the rest, it seemed at times as if they were too much engaged in asking the old questions and leaving them unanswered, except by analogies and assumptions that ignored the necessity of proof. I know of at least one listener who strayed away from the hall of eloquence, to find a more soothing, if less positive response from the trees and the sky. On one occasion he watched a tame though uncaged squirrel, playing about the bole of an enormous elm and returning his gaze with beady eyes that defied all attempts to surprise the secret of his being. Finally the squirrel, tearing a leaf from a weed near by, ran with it up the elm, jumped from the tip of a topmost branch to another neighbor elm of equal size, and then came down the trunk of that to the lowest fork of the boughs, where he disappeared. Presently he was in sight again without the leaf, and stared impertinently at his human observer, as if to say, “ Can you tell where I have hidden it ? That’s a riddle you can’t answer, any more than the pundits over there can really solve the vital problems of the world ! ”
In truth, there were plaints on the part of some among the pilgrims at the extent to which abstractions were dealt in by the school. “ I wish they would teach us how to live,” said one of the most earnest, albeit not erudite, among them. “ I wish they would talk more about something else than the eternal and the abstract. I don’t mean to be irreverent, but really we have had God hashed up in so many forms, like the Chinese kittens, that I’m sick of it.”
Yet, in any serious view, it cannot be doubted that the school did good. It inspired. It is no derogation from its dignity that women chiefly sustained it ; for they are the true conservators of culture in this land of ours, where the great body of men live for barbaric ends of wealth and physical achievement. It is a good omen, too, that so sincere and self-sacrificing a person as Elizabeth Thompson should have furnished the financial sinews for its present activity. The five weeks of devout, and in the main candid, thinking which those of us who were present have to remember, form the only realization I ever met with of the proverbial “ month of Sundays ; ” for every day of the term had something about it that rose above the secular. When it was all over, and the bond which had held such various elements together so long was dissolved, did not the fact that the thing had been at all, though now so intangible, prove the power and reality of ideas and of immortal aspirations? The words that had been said had faded away into the pale summer air, as if they were nothing ; but though utterance passes away like the individual of a species, the idea, the influence, remains, like the universal type of the species. And the immediate effect or result is not all.
When the valedictory had been pronounced and the session adjourned for the last time, it was seen that some of the green apples in the orchard were already rosy-ripe and full of sustenance. Others, on other trees, were but faintly streaked with the morning-red of coming maturity. The more valuable and enduring fruit will ripen still later.