Two Serious Books
THE keen and restless intelligence of the author of Eighteenth Century Studies, Belcaro, Euphorion, and Miss Brown has been exercising itself of late on matters of more universal interest than the developments of art, and its real or fanciful relations with morality. Religion is the primary theme of Baldwin, a Book of Dialogues, and there is much of what is most essential and ennobling about the application to life and thought of any form of religion in the attitude of earnest inquiry, the respect for truth, and the charity of spirit which the book displays. Nevertheless, it is, in form, only one more obituary of religion ; regardful of the deceased, and regretful, but presumably final. We have all of us, in our day, read a good many of these tributes to departed worth, and sometimes they have been found rather deeply penetrated by the sort of misgiving which may be supposed to trouble the mind of a funeral orator, when there lies at the bottom of his consciousness a suspicion that the subject of his eloquence may be only a mysterious disappearance, and not a bona fide demise, after all. It is not so with Vernon Lee. Her hero, Baldwin, is intended to illustrate in his own person, by the symmetry of his character, the excellent balance of his faculties, the cheerfulness of his temperament, and the general sanity of his soul, how comfortably the well - organized human being can get on without those outworn beliefs which he is not even unkind enough to call superstitions ; by making the truly best of this life, in short, without any reference whatever to an imaginary eternity.
Futile objections and sentimental retours are, for the most part, put into the mouths of this competent gentleman’s interlocutors ; the dialogue form in which Baldwin is cast being one which lends itself equally well to the dubitations of an honest inquirer, detained by an almost even balance of opinion, and to the craft of the well-fortified reasoner who seeks to enhance, by a series of more or less easy triumphs over fictitious disputants, the effect of his own settled conclusions. In rather inclining to the latter method, Vernon Lee is but following the lead of all the great masters of imaginary dialogue, beginning with Plato. What weakens the effect of it in her case is a certain vagueness in the outlines of her chief spokesman’s personality. The very pains she is at, in her preface, to explain how Baldwin is herself, and yet not herself, foreshadows a something illusory in the character of his mental experiences. ” If I be I, as I suppose I be,” seems but a shaky foundation for a philosophy of life. Yet it is perhaps unfair to press this point, seeing that in her singularly graceful and touchingdedication of this book to her brother, and her warm tribute of gratitude to him for his influence in forming her own “ views and aspirations,” the essayist may distinctly have intended to offer us a clue to the seemingly shifting and uncertain individuality of Baldwin. It is, at all events, in the case of so fresh, eager, and disinterested a thinker as Vernon Lee, quite worth while to try and learn a little more precisely what these views and aspirations are.
The first dialogue, on the Responsibilities of Unbelief, purports to be a conversation between three rationalists who are passing their summer holiday on an English farm, and who have been, as a matter of curiosity, to hear an argumentative sermon by a plausible Roman Catholic divine, preached in the private chapel of an ultramontane earl, hard by their place of rustication. There is a mocking Voltairean rationalist, there is an emotional, yearning rationalist, and there is the far-advanced and eminently dispassionate Baldwin. That they make quick work among them of the Monsignore’s discourse need hardly be said. Their talk soon drifts away from that ingenious performance, and circles about the question whether enlightened unbelievers, like themselves, ought not to take a lesson from the preacher’s proselyting zeal, and endeavor, more systematically than they have ever yet done, to dispel in others the lingering illusions of faith. The sentimental rationalist, Vere, has an orthodox wife, and children who, for the present, are naturally under her influence, and he pleads to be allowed to leave them in the undisturbed enjoyment of their “ early heaven, their happy views.” He cites, rather wistfully, the fable of Pandora, and asks why the modern post - Christian paganism need be more ruthless than the old, which permitted mankind to retain hope, even when reft by his own recklessness of every other blessing. Baldwin is quite patient with this weakness of his friend, even admitting that he had once to struggle against something of the same sort in his own breast, but he is firm.
“ I love my wife,” says Vere, piteously, “ and I respect her belief.”
“ You may abet her belief, Vere, but if, as you say, you consider it mere error and falsehood, you cannot respect it.” “ I am surprised,” Baldwin adds, a few pages later, “ at your not being almost involuntarily forced into communicating what you know to be truth; surprised that there should not be in your mind an imperious sense that truth must out. Moreover, I think that the responsibility of holding back truth is always greater than any man can calculate, or any man, could he know the full consequences thereof, could support. . . . Do you seriously consider that a man is doing right in destroying, for the supposed happiness of his children, the spark of truth which happens to be in his power, and which belongs neither to him nor to his children, but to the whole world ? Can you assert that it is honest on your part, in order to save your children the pain of knowing that they will not meet you, or their mother, or their dead friends again in heaven, to refuse to give them the truth for which your ancestors have paid with their blood and liberty ? ” etc.
It will be seen that Baldwin claims wholly to have surmounted the proverbial difficulty of proving a negative, and when Vere hints a little feebly that he considers the consciences of his children at stake, no less than their happiness, his mentor replies, with unalterable mildness, by a lucid exposition of the purely utilitarian doctrine of morals. Morality, he explains, so far from being a thing of supernatural sanctions, is only a sort of “ rule of the road,” established for the sake of common convenience, after man had finally been evolved out of the inferior orders which preceded him on our planet. He retraces the steps by which he himself has been brought out of the darkness of a quasi-pietism into the dry light of scientific truth, the full knowledge that “ the distinction between right and wrong conduct had arisen in the course of the evolution of mankind, that right and wrong meant only that which was conducive or detrimental to the increasing happiness of humanity, that they were referable only to human beings in their various relations with each other, that it was impossible to explain them except with reference to human society.”
The Voltairean rationalist, Reinhardt, interferes very seldom at this stage of the discussion, save by an occasional amused cackle over the absurd and wasteful earnestness of the other two. He does not quite go the length of that delightful creature, the placid agnostic in Punch, who, under a heavy fire of argumentation from an agnostic of the active type, is driven to exclaim, “ Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian! ” but he does suggest, with some pertinence, when Vere is wailing over the worse than Olympian license and cruelty which seem to characterize Nature, when we fix our eyes exclusively upon her phenomena, that there appears to have been a difference between the two great human races in this regard, and that ” with the Semitic the feeling of right and wrong, of what ought and ought not to be, entirely overshadows the mere direct, scientific perception of nature.”
On the whole, however, there is no very striking difference in the points of view of the three rationalists, the effect of whose performance on the mind of the reader is curiously like the effect upon the ear of one of those old-fashioned musical exercises called a round, where the performers take up the same melody, one after another, at intervals of a phrase, the result being a tolerable harmony of notes accompanied by an inextricable confusion of language.
In dialogue number two, which is rather ironically entitled The Consolations of Belief, we have our Baldwin consistently and conscientiously doing his best to undermine the remnant of religious faith under which one Agatha, a high-minded and clear-headed Scotch girl, is endeavoring to shelter herself from the storms of life and the menace of death. She is only the merest deist. Agatha pleads with him. She has wrenched herself, painfully, indeed, but resolutely, from her early belief in “ Christ and the angels,” but she does continue to confide in God and the goodness of his will. Baldwin is plainly sorry to have to hunt this good creature out of her last refuge; but since she has been rash enough to open the conversation by chiding him for his too militant skepticism, he feels that he has no choice. He asks her where, having rejected as mere human utterances the promises handed down by the church, she can expect to find any sanction for her belief in individual immortality and the compensations of unmerited suffering ; and when she replies that these convictions are justified by the very fact of their existence, that " they are written by the hand of God, and by him mysteriously sealed up in the human heart,” Baldwin, though “ naturally an impatient man,” takes time and temper to confute her as follows : —
“ There is indeed in our consciousness a difficulty of conceiving annihilation, something analogous, I fancy, to our mechanical difficulty of seeing our own back ; and there is also a strong instinctive desire for the preservation of our life and of our property, among which latter the life of those beloved of us is certainly the most valuable. This horror of annihilation and this difficulty of conceiving it, both of them peculiarities explicable by reference to our mere present condition, naturally combined and produced, in the absence of any scientific facts which rendered such a conception difficult, a hope, a belief in a future existence, which it is quite possible may have become almost hereditary in us. Your God-written promise is thus easily reduced to a mere wish for a prolongation of consciousness, grown to a certainty for sheer want of being contradicted.”
The conversation, which had taken place on board a steamer lying ready for departure at some Continental port, was here interrupted for the night, only to be resumed the next morning, as they drew near to London by the impressive way of the Thames. The girl, not unnaturally, confessed to having lain awake all night, thinking over the hard sayings of her tutor, and “ the more I think,” she added, with somewhat startling candor, “ the more horrible and incredible it seems to me that a human soul should live in such a nightmare of wickedness, should endure the pollution of such a belief as yours.” Whereupon the vain struggle recommences, and the everlasting arguments upon either side are reiterated ; with what pungency of expression, what wealth of illustration, what a heroic endeavor after fairness, clearness, and logical consistency, those will readily conceive who admire, as they ought, the enormous literary endowment of Vernon Lee, and the absolute singleness of purpose which characterizes all her work. “ Do you still think I am deserving of compassion ? ” is Baldwin’s final inquiry, after bringing forth a score or two more of knock-down arguments, designed to prove that God, if there be a God, is neither good nor bad, but, morally, a totally indifferent being. “ ‘ Can you wonder if I consider that I am a happier man for believing that morality has no meaning, no raison d’être, no use, except where human beings are brought into relation with each other; that it cannot therefore be expected of any save human beings ; and for having thus been liberated myself from the frightful incubus of a Creator who establishes morality, and violates, and forces to its violation ? Do you think I am to be commiserated, or rather to be envied ? ’ . . . A strange melancholy, almost like a physical ache, came over Agatha. ‘ I think you are deserving of envy,’ she answered, Coldly, ... ‘ but I prefer to believe in the goodness of God.’ ”
Freely and forcibly as the girl has been encouraged to speak for herself, it is plain that we are to consider her quite vanquished. It is of Baldwin’s mercy alone that she is allowed the last word ; or, rather, it seems to be something like an odd sense of delicacy, arising from the author’s instinctive identification of herself with that doughty doctrinaire, which prevents her from pressing her grievous advantage yet further, and compelling a formal surrender.
These first two dialogues must be regarded as giving the key-note of the book. The others deal with questions less fundamental, and are plainly to be held as merely accessory to these, and as incidentally strengthening their conclusions. The third bears the slightly confusing title of Honor and Evolution. Here we have an amiable young devotee of science confessing to Baldwin the disgust which has overtaken him with his once favorite pursuits, and telling with somewhat painful minuteness the story of what he has suffered through the vain attempt to reconcile himself, in the interests of science, to the horrors of vivisection. It was not likely that the omnicurious Baldwin should have let alone a subject which has agitated the minds of thinking men in England so recently and so deeply as this ; and accordingly he can quite appreciate the position of the horrified complainant, and has at his tongue’s end the testimony of forty or more learned authorities in the case, English, French, and German, whose experiments are carefully cited in the footnotes.
Baldwin is, in fact, almost equal to Mr. Brooke, in Middlemarch, in always anticipating the mental exercises of his companion, having “ gone into that a good deal, at one time, myself, — but not too far, not too far, you know ! ” In the present instance he surprises us a little. Consistent and unflinching positivist though he claims to be, and confident of the ultimate salvation of the world by science, he quite takes the part of the recalcitrant young student Michael. He will not admit that the ends of human advancement are to be subserved by the torture of helpless creatures of so inferior an order that they can have no possible share in the benefits which might accrue to mankind from such ruthless experimentation. He maintains that a point of honor is involved ; and when Michael objects that honor is an antiquated motive, a part of an effete romanticism, and that the code thereof is now, “ scientifically, merely a museum curiosity,” Baldwin admits that this is so, but maintains that the place of barren honor is now fully supplied by a new motive, which is “ in reality only another phase of the same thing,” and which he calls evolutional morality. “ As the sudden word of command by which things were created is now understood as the mere inevitable adjustment and development of physical things, so also this old principle of honor is now comprehensible as the instinct, the ingrained habit, due to ages of deliberate choice, of preferring certain sets of motives to certain other ones. For, as our physical nature has been evolved by the selection and survival of those physical forms which are in harmony with the greatest number of physical circumstances, so also has our moral nature been evolved by the more and more conscious choice of the motives, including consideration for the greatest number of results from our actions ; of the motives which, instead of merely enlarging the shapeless and functionless moral polyp-jelly of Ego, work out, diversify, unify, and lick into shape the complicated moral organism of society, with all its innumerable and wondrously coördinated limbs and functions.”
“ He who readeth, let him understand.” Baldwin is clearer, if not more cogent, when he goes on to urge that there is something distinctly unmanly in the frantic impatience of physical pain which would lead us to shift the burden of it upon the nerves of any defenseless victim ; and that certain high moral qualities are cultivated in men, by the brave endurance of mere corporeal anguish, which might perhaps disappear entirely were science likely to fulfill her promise of wholly eliminating it from the code of human discipline. It is, at all events, with this rather uncertain sound on the part of the teacher that the discussion on vivisection closes.
Baldwin fully recovers his ex cathedra tone, and holds the balance of opinion with much dignity in the succeeding dialogue, which turns upon the delicate question which is preferable, the outspoken obscenity of the French novel, or the bland prudery of the English; and whether the unpleasant, or, as our author frankly says, nasty class of subjects most in favor with the modern French school ought to be treated in fiction at all. Baldwin is for a via media between the two extremes, which are severally sustained by Marcel, “ the subtle young French critic and novelist,” and Mrs. Blake, an elderly lady, eminent in English fiction. The text of this talk is Wuthering Heights, — for Marcel has come to Yorkshire to “ study the Brontës,” — and they are all out upon the open moors above Haworth. Mrs. Blake dislikes poor Emily Brontë’s feverish book, for its extravagance and shapelessness, and for the flagrant ignorance it displays of life and men as they really are. The Frenchman, on the contrary, admires it above all the productions of the other sisters, for its revelation of an intense personality, and classes it, effectively, to say the least, with the Vita Nuova and the Confessions of J. J. Rousseau. And there is with them a fine, frank young English girl, of a recent type, named Dorothy ; a sort of universal genius, “ painter, sculptor, philanthropist, and mystic,” “ immature, full of enthusiasm, unconscious of passion,” “ boldly conversant with evil in the abstract, pathetically ignorant of evil in the concrete,” — a sufficiently life-like and pleasing figure ; and she too adores Wuthering Heights, and thanks Marcel impulsively for classing it with the Vita Nuova, but does not like to have it ranked with the Confessions. Marcel says, in substance, that Dorothy ought never to have read such a book as the Confessions, and Baldwin replies, proudly and very justly, that if any manner of person can read that sort of book without harm, it is such an one as she ; and so the talk turns, as aforesaid, upon the whole performance of Jean Jacques’s literary progeny, the Baudelaires, Flauberts, Maupassants, and Zolas, which Baldwin neither wholly approves, nor unreservedly condemns.
So, too, in the next dialogue, on the Value of the Ideal, the universal umpire rather disappoints a certain ardent youngartist, of the modern realistic school, named Carlo, by refusing thoroughly to take his part against old Sir Anthony, who had been knighted for his achievements a generation earlier, as the painter of “ strange, gorgeous, symbolic creatures.” These two artists, father and son, are among the nicest people with whom Baldwin has to deal in the course of the book, and we do not in the least wonder that he should sympathize with them both. His decision is that the painter who confines himself to the representation of what he actually sees misses his function. He must depict reality, indeed, but the best possible reality, — reality selected, extracted, and enhanced by his own aspirations after perfection; external reality, in short, as modified by the individuality of the artist, this being, as Baldwin shrewdly suspects, what Mr. Pater meant when he said that all spontaneous art tends always to the condition of music, where the personal element goes for so much, where the artist’s conception is necessarily subjective, and he produces “ not with reference to a preëxisting reality, but to the desires of his own soul.”
Finally, in the misty, moon-illumined last dialogue of all, the scene of which is fitly laid in a Venetian garden, late on a summer night, we have Baldwin opposing such resistance as lies in his power to the blank pessimism, on the one hand, of the young French critic who had studied the Brontës, and, on the other, to the metaphysical distresses of a beautiful, shadowy creature named Olivia, who wants “ to be rid of her own personality.” It ought not to be difficult, one would say, to get clear of so very slight and nebulous an entanglement; and in general, it may be remarked of the partners in this concluding talk on Doubts and Pessimism that they resemble St. Paul in this one respect, at least, that “ the weapons of their warfare are not carnal.” The truth is that the thoughts evoked are not fleshless merely, but formless ; fluctuating, interchangeable, rising and subsiding like the waves in the moonlit water, each burnished for a moment with some dazzling reflection, beautiful to behold, but incapable, either singly or collectively, of gathering and storinglight. Baldwin’s last word — for of course he has, as he ought, the very last word — is an implied praise of energy ; but why energy, and to what end, he does not condescend to explain.
I have purposely abbreviated my abstract of the later dialogues, from a growing conviction of the impossibility of doing justice in this way to what is really most excellent and striking in the book which takes its name from the dual Baldwin. The tone of it is so argumentative as long to delude the reader into the belief that it must be a main argument; whereas the truth is that, beyond the solemn profession of so-called agnosticism with which it opens, none such can be discerned. The author owns that Baldwin is two people; she might as well have confessed him twenty, for any real consistency or continuity there is in his opinions. He claims to be an “ evolutionist,” but in three hundred and seventyfive more or less brilliant pages he helps us very little toward a satisfactory conception of what that sonorous term implies, — at least in the moral order. The charm of the book consists in its universal and, so to speak, irrepressible cleverness ; in incidental subtleties of thought and felicities of expression; above all, in the prevailing sweetness and openness of its temper, and the intrinsic humility of inquiry underlying its apparent arrogance of assertion. There is something engaging in the very ease with which the questioning intelligence veers from point to point, and the rapidity with which it will occasionally sweep the whole spiritual horizon, in its eager search after some steadfast spark of truth.
Most of all, however, is Baldwin the book, in distinction from Baldwin the man, interesting and even important, as a sample of the fruits, ethical and literary, of the unadulterated modern spirit. That great writer Thomas Hardy somewhere speaks of a man the glance of whose eye was still so youthful that it seemed to “ permeate rather than penetrate a subject.” Vernon Lee’s elastic juvenility of mind has the same quality and effect. Thanks to her singular precocity, she has been able early to master and consistently to apply the so-called inductive method ; to accumulate a rich store of facts, on a vast variety of subjects, without serious prejudice from any preëstablished tendency, and also without the slightest decline of vigor or symptom of satiety. She has not dreamed as yet of counting her mental steps, and has, apparently, no conception of mental fatigue. Consequently, it is still a pure delight to her to be excursive. She has much to say on a great many subjects, and many times the number of words at command that are needful to say it in. Her thought, to adopt a metaphor from the language of her school, seems not yet to have outgrown the stage of development which is denoted in physics by the multiplication of cells. It repeats itself a thousand times for every slightest differentiation. This is one reason why it is so difficult to quote her fairly, in a finite article ; and she labors under another very curious literary disadvantage, arising from a kindred source. The occupation of her abundant powers in the mere observance of phenomena, the absence of determinism, the scorn of all synthesis, have a direct reaction upon her style; one result being that she can never produce upon the reader’s mind a distinct impression of what she herself sees. She can only enumerate items; she cannot portray a whole. That finest — must we indeed no longer say divinest ? — of the human faculties, the imagination, which fuses and unifies, if not originally absent, seems well-nigh paralyzed through disuse. Vernon Lee is intensely conscious, and no doubt intensely fond, in her way, of external nature. She is always interrupting the conversation of her people by abrupt and rather irrelevant notes of the landscape which encompasses them and the atmospheric conditions of the hour. Her observations are exceedingly minute, including the most evanescent aspects and trivial phenomena. But they are as technical as a painter’s written notes might be, and of as little use in conveying a distinct idea, or making a clear image in the mind of the reader. Let me give a single instance out of scores :
“ They rowed on for some while in silence, absorbed once more in the strange beauty of the islands and sandbanks which their gondola skirted, in its northward way toward Venice. Broken only by orchards was a long line of little villages, their rows of houses reflected in the sea, — houses whose red, scoriated bricks and worn white and rose-colored plaster, illumined with intensity by the reflected light from the water, had, against the lilac-blue, hot, opaque sky, printed with slender pink belfries and white, funnel-shaped chimneys, a strange, powdery brilliancy of color, full of thick white and rose, as of pastel; unreal, exquisite in tone, like some canvas by Veronese, or fresco by Tiepolo. Indeed, only the sea seemed real, consistent, made of something less illusory than delicate tinted chalks on reddish prepared paper ; the sea, with white and orange sails flecking it like butterflies, which was of a thick, marble smoothness, gray with blue and lilac veinings, and opalescences, in the low light, as of glass spun with gold-dust.”
Now we can no doubt infer, from these data, a beautiful evening in Venice, but we have absolutely no vision of the scene. Despite the author’s earnest and evidently loving attention to the details of it, the result is a mere chaos of material, a soulless phantasmagoria. Can it be because the soul of external nature, that which the heavens declared to the Hebrew poet, the spiritus intus, the mens infusa, of the Latin poet, is precisely what positivism has eliminated, and what a positivist as young in years, as single-minded, and as thorough-going as our author must needs have come too late to apprehend ?
But to be merely an evolutionist does not necessarily imply, we are told, the elimination of a First Cause, or the absence of an “ interfused soul” in the brute mass of physical phenomena and a controlling thought in the chaos of human affairs. Another new book lies beside Baldwin on my table, the author of which formally proclaims himself an evolutionist. It is W. S. Lilly’s Chapters in European History, wherein that able writer proceeds to the further development and more ample illustration of certain ideas which he had previously advanced in a book entitled Ancient Religion and Modern Thought. In the present work, at least, there is nothing vague nor provisional: there are no moral titillations or coquettings between contradictory hypotheses; there is no neglect of synthesis or absence of determinism. The opening chapter is indeed thrown, like the whole of Baldwin, into the dialogue form; but two out of three of the interlocutors are, in this case, merely the traditional men of straw, who stand up for the express purpose of being bowled over by the principal speaker. The very name of the latter, Luxmore, may be intended as an allegory to signify that he has received more light than they. At all events, the proposed question being what history can teach us, Luxmore’s contention is that it teaches, and that clearly, the divine government of the world and the constant progress of mankind to higher and better things. He regards Christianity as the central fact of human history; the opening of the Christian era, the point at which the race registers its greatest advance and most substantial gain; and the Roman Catholic Church as the divinely appointed and imperishable depositary of Christian truth.
A la bonne heure ! It would seem, at first sight, that there is at least nothing new in such a position as this. But let no reader of advanced views and modern sympathies be repelled from Mr. Lilly’s performance by the notion that the latter is a mere reactionist, and that all is known beforehand which a Christian, and especially a Roman Catholic apologist, can have to say. Never was a book so full of surprises. The thesis may be old, but the arguments by which it is sustained are of a novelty and ingenuity, an almost whimsical originality, fit to beguile the most obstinately dissentient reader, and maintain him in a state of agreeable excitement. Never, in short, was a grave and closely reasoned treatise so readable, — I had almost said sensational. If the essence of wit, as prigs maintain, lies in the unexpected association of incongruous ideas, then the Chapters of European History is, by all odds, the wittiest book of the decade, whether or no it is the weightiest. Here are some of Mr. Lilly’s main points: —
The asserted progress of modern European society “ may be described as the evolution of the individual.” But the individual can be evolved and advance to higher phases of development only under conditions both of spiritual and political freedom. The Catholic Church, as the natural guardian of man’s spiritual freedom, is the natural foe of his political oppressors. Therefore the periods when the church is depressed and dishonored are periods of political reaction and degradation ; while those in which she triumphantly maintains her proper ascendency over all earthly or merely civil potentates are those of the true dignity and rapid advancement of the individual and of the race. The close of the first Christian millennium was notoriously a time of deep abasement and corruption in the church ; and the mind of man was proportionably stagnant and besotted. Gregory the Great, who achieved the double work of reforming the manners of the clergy while he humbled to the dust the worldly sovereigns who had defied the ecclesiastical authority, was a great apostle of human freedom, and a promoter of human enlightenment. The period of history which this mighty pontiff inaugurated — the mediæval period, properly so called —is one of the most glorious and truly gainful in the annals of mankind ; that is to say, of the European branch, to which Mr. Lilly confines his attention. The several sovereigns of Europe were then all members of one great theocratic confederacy, correctly styled Christendom ; and they owned their common allegiance to a paramount ruler, who was the direct representative of divinity upon earth. The subjects of these various princes were thus placed beyond the possibility of enslavement, because they had always an appeal to the sacred central authority from the tyranny of their immediate masters. The result of these happy conditions was an enormous expansion of the human mind, and an unexampled growth in its powers of invention and production, signalized by such names as those of Roger Bacon in physics, Dante in poetry, Giotto, and Niccolo Pisano, and the great Gothic builders in art. This was the true Renaissance, or reanimation and rejuvenation of man’s highest faculties ; not that wild retour toward paganism which marked the latter half of the fifteenth century, and which usually receives the name. The immediate results of this false Renaissance were the depravation of manners and the decline of art. Its remote results — to use Mr. Lilly’s own emphatic and many times repeated formula — have been " absolutism in the political, and materialism in the philosophic, order.” The infection of the church by pagan learning and the relapse into more than pagan vice of some of her highest clergy provoked the sharp calamity of the Protestant schism; and when the Society of Jesus arose to rescue and nobly vindicate for a time the perishing cause of man’s spiritual freedom, it was Louis XIV., the type and supreme exemplar of the absolute monarch of modern times, who achieved its suppression, and, so far as possible, trampled out the life of it. The assertion of the so-called “ Gallican liberties ” — which, by the way, Mr. Lilly considers quite as flagrant and melancholy a misnomer as the term Renaissance — was the natural preamble to the blasphemies of the philosophes, the atheistic atrocities of the great Revolution, and the rampant materialism of the nineteenth century, in France and all the lands that take their cue from France. The unchecked tyranny of the Grand Monarque paved the way for that more fatal tyranny of the irresponsible majority, — the largest, and so inevitably the lowest, class of mankind, which our author delights to call by the jaw-breaking name of ochlocracy,” and whose imminent ascendency is undoubtedly regarded with deep concern by most sane and sensible men.
Mr. Lilly’s learning is wide, his thinking powers are beautifully disciplined, his style is remarkable for clearness and point. But his most wonderful quality, taken in connection with the almost romantic ultramontanism of his views, is, as has been before hinted, his intense modernness of tone and even of phraseology. He abounds in quotation, both direct and indirect, but the authorities whom he cites are the exponents of the “ Zeitgeist,” not the Fathers of the church. The names with which his broad page bristles are Tennyson, Taine, Lecky, George Eliot, Mark Pattison, and Renan; while St. Thomas Aquinas and Suarez retire modestly into the footnotes. His aim, as we are forced to conclude, is to rout with their own captured cannon the foremost representatives of recent speculation. Now there is something brilliant and alluring in the very boldness of such an enterprise, and I, for one, should not have been sorry to witness his complete success. It would not have been the first time, by many, in the history of human thought, that a seeming paradox has been victoriously demonstrated, and it is always a good lesson for conceited doctrinaires when this occurs. Were such a squaring of the circle possible as Mr. Lilly proposes, — such a fusion of the august and consecrated old with the enlarging and exhilarating new, — how would not the weight of the unintelligible world be lightened once for all, our saddest apprehensions dispelled, our largest hope realized! True, we should apparently have to own not merely that the evolution of the soul of man, the magnificent progress of the race toward its divine goal, is capable of being temporarily arrested, but that the would-be pioneers of modern thought are actually caught in a sort of eddy or back-water, by no means affecting the general “ stream of tendency ” along which we are all eventually bound to move. And so much we might well do without serious disheartenment, — nay, rather with a buoyant faith.
But has Mr. Lilly fairly made his points ? Unfortunately, I cannot see that he has done so. In spite of his winning address and his air of high literary respectability and even fashion, I am afraid we must own that he is a sturdy beggar of questions. Turning to those of his chapters which refer exclusively to the mediæval period, we find that he has retold with fresh touches of power and pathos — even after Renan — the tale of the triumph of primitive Christianity over Roman Imperialism, and of Roman Christianity over barbarian Imperialism. His account of the mission of the great Hildebrand I believe to be, substantially, the true one. In the chapter on Mediæval Spiritualism, as illustrated by the great Latin hymns of the church, I could wish, indeed, that he had refrained from all attempts at translation. It is true, no doubt, that Dr. Neale, the author of the most widely popular versions of these hymns, is guilty, if not exactly of false glosses, at least of the occasional suppression of distasteful doctrine. Nevertheless, there is, to my mind, more of the genuine spirit of mediæval Christianity in the single stanza beginning, “ For thee, O dear, dear country, mine eyes their vigils keep! ” than in all of Mr. Lilly’s bald and laborious renderings put together. But this may be merely because the latter is not in the least a poet, while Dr. Neale undoubtedly was one.
When he comes to the Renaissance, however, Mr. Lilly seems to me to offer, not so much a re-reading of the facts as a re-arrangement which amounts almost to a transformation. Take, for example, the exceedingly interesting chapter on Michael Angelo and his work. Because that supreme artist lived and died a sincere Catholic believer, Mr. Lilly claims that his whole career was a protest against the revived paganism of his time, and that “ he was the prophet of the humanistic Renaissance only in the sense in which Jonah was the prophet of Nineveh and Lot was the prophet of Sodom.” Now I have often wondered that winters of Mr. Lilly’s persuasion have not habitually laid more stress on the staunch theoretic orthodoxy, over and above the deep piety of sentiment, evinced both by Michael Angelo and by Vittoria Colonna during the late and solemn season of their immortal friendship. Two of the highest intelligences of the time — the greatest man, take him for all in all, and probably also the greatest woman — remained deliberately loyal to the old dogma, though each had been brought into intimate contact with influences exceedingly hostile to it: Michael Angelo, who had passed the most impressionable years of his “ mighty youth" in the house of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and the very porch, so to speak, of the Platonic Academy ; Vittoria, through her association with the Court of Ferrara when it was ruled by that earnest and openly Protestantizing Duchess Renée, daughter of Louis XII. of France and wife of Ercole d’Este, who made Olympia Morata her protégée and Calvin her honored guest. The allegiance of these ascendant and speculative spirits to the old faith remained unshaken; and the circumstance is all the more remarkable, and none the worse, I should think, for Mr. Lilly’s special purpose, in that the visible works of Michael Angelo’s hands, the imperishable monuments which offer to all time their mute witness to the temper of his mind, were so palpably inspired by his studies of the pagan antique, and imbued with the very essence of humanism. Even those fading shapes, doubly awful in their decay, which loom above and seem ready to descend and crush us in the Sistine Chapel, are Titans of the pagan prime. The heaven there visioned is Olympian and the hell Tartarean ; and, for the rest, the figures which Michael Angelo wrought for us were those of the men of this world, — struggling, suffering, pondering, commanding, despondent, or defiant men; mere men, however mighty, and women of a manly mould. Even the sublime Madonna of the great Pietà in St. Peter’s, the most spiritual of all his women, is a being yet more intellectual than spiritual, more majestic than angelic, who faces her unutterable woe with a conscious gathering of all her natural forces, and far more in the spirit of Dürer’s Melancholia than with the celestial sadness and visionary resignation of the Mater Dolorosa of an earlier day.
In short, it is very peculiarly and precisely the human condition, and the fatality of it, which Michael Angelo represents ; humanity in its fleshly limitations and tragical isolation, not humanity in its supposed relations with the eternal and divine. And so, when we consider him as an ecclesiastical architect: it is conceivable that St, Peter’s might have been yet grander than it is, had his designs been fully carried out, but nothing could have changed the order of its grandeur. It is, and must ever have been, in its unparalleled stateliness, its contempt of mystery, its broad and bright magnificence, a symbol rather of human pride than of human aspiration; the spacious and effulgent court of the first in the hierarchy of human sovereignties, rather than a temple which suggests infinity and compels to prayer, like the cathedrals of Siena and Pisa, and the dim, stupendous fanes of northern lands. None the less, because it outranked them so superbly, did St. Peter’s inaugurate the succession of those pompous but thoroughly mundane constructions which passed everywhere for churches in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is a curious fact, also, that in the case of the most perfectly beautiful church which Michael Angelo ever made, that of Sta. Maria degli Angeli in Rome, he had a pagan foundation to start from and a pagan framework to fill; and it may fairly be questioned whether this is not the very reason why, from a merely æsthetic point of view, the effect is so singularly symmetrical and satisfying.
No ; it was assuredly not Michael Angelo’s mission to denounce judgment on his era, but rather to illustrate it. Like Shakespeare, so nearly his contemporary, and his only peer in modern times, he celebrated the majority of the human race, the end of its period of tutelage, the beginning of that of heavy warfare and full responsibility. Yet will it be believed that, incidentally, in one of the essays, Mr. Lilly claims Shakespeare also as a mediævalist rather than a modern, as opposing by the whole tenor of his work the drift of the “ humanistic Renaissance ” ? And then, is it true that Port Royal was a forgery of fresh chains for the human spirit, that the keen shafts of the Lettres Provinciales were directed against the leaders of true progress, that Alva in the Netherlands was the champion of man’s highest and dearest rights ? How happens it, after all, if spiritual and political health and freedom do really go hand in hand, that England, the archrebel against the one authentic spiritual authority, should have held intact that treasure of civil dignity and independence in which Mr. Lilly so patriotically exults, while the same was swamped in the rising tide of Renaissance absolutism, and missed for good and all by the loyal and obedient members of that once happy but now distraught and divided family, the great lost entity of Christendom ?
The truth is that Mr. Lilly’s ingenuity goes far to defeat his own end. The average British mind, and also the British descended, cherishes a dogged and perhaps rather stupid preference for straightforward methods in thought no less than in action. The moment a reasoner shows himself exceptionally adroit, we begin, very unjustly in some cases, no doubt, to suspect his candor. The more we may have been charmed, at the outset, by the neatness of his dialectic, the more surely the suspicion occurs that he is perhaps merely practicing for our amusement, and the instinct is aroused of resistance to his inferences. We quarrel with Vernon Lee for coming to no conclusion whatever on matters which we feel to be of vital import; but no more do we want, especially in matters so vital, a conclusion sprung upon us by Mr. Lilly. If we weary of the diffused and dazzling lights of the foggy ocean, where the former lies becalmed, and even sicken a little at that incessant rocking of her craft which implies no inch of progress, we are ready to resent being quietly attached by the latter, and towed by a tortuous channel into we know not exactly what land-locked port. We thoroughly respect, in the bottom of our hearts, the intellectual integrity implied in Vernon Lee’s suspense of opinion ; but while we sympathize to some extent with Mr. Lilly’s aims, and own that he has saintly example for becoming a Greek to the Greeks, a dull doubt remains with us of his perfect intellectual honesty. Truly, we are an uneasy and captious generation !
Harriet Waters Preston.