The Growth of Materialism
“One of the most common of current phrases is that of having a good time, and too generally it is employed as an excuse for some gross evasion of duty, some ignoble yielding to a shameful egotism, some contemptible concession to a self-indulged, pithless inclination.”
A few years ago an observer found himself in a great mining centre on the Pacific slope. The place was, both in situation and general character, uncompromisingly material. In a region of sage brush and alkali barrens a range of mountains rose. No forest growth flanked and softened them. No cultivated area led up to the base of their higher peaks. They stood confessed in a native hideousness which gave a repellent aspect to the whole country. The sinuous and difficult railroad track that wound into the heart of this strange territory revealed none of the familiar tokens of advancing settlement and civilization. There were no green pastures, nor cultivated fields, nor orchards, nor vineyards, nor copses, nor pleasant homesteads. The windings of the road changed the outlook incessantly, but it was always some variation in the grim and frowning ugliness of gray rocks or dull green sage brush, dry ravine or naked scarped crags, that met the wearied eye. If perchance a stream was seen, it had been changed into a yellow muddy current by the uses to which it had been put, and the nature of which was indicated here and there by the unpicturesque framework of flume and riffle, wing-dam and sluice. Connected with these evidences of man’s presence were occasional cabins, rude and simple as possible, bare of every hint of ornament, affording no suggestion of even a germ of imagination in the builders and occupants of these coarse and graceless hovels.
The town lay on a mountain side, irregular, careless, and in full character with the country. It straggled along the length of a great lode of precious ore, and its most important edifices were the huge hoisting works which covered the mouths of the many shafts. The mines, which descended deep into the mountain, had produced enormously. They had attracted a peculiar population; one which lived without the sight or companionship of trees, or flowers, or grass, or birds, complacently and contentedly; one which was satisfied with its surroundings, so long as the mines yielded largely, or speculation in the stocks of them prospered. At the time referred to a sort of crisis had occurred, and the town was in an unusual state of excitement. A certain mine, the stock of which had sunk as low as five dollars a share, was rumored to have developed a very rich ore body. It can hardly be said that the report was merely a rumor. Semi-official authority was imparted to it in devious and indirect ways, with the intended effect of strengthening the general belief in the truth of the news. The stock rose, and continued to rise. In two weeks it sprang from five to two hundred and fifty dollars a share. Long before the climax was reached the people of that mining town had so abandoned themselves to the spell of the excitement that to an undisturbed spectator they might easily have appeared irresponsible, even insane. Fortunes were being made between dawn and dark. Every group in the streets was discussing, with covetous, glittering eyes and shortened breathing, some new tale of sudden achievement, some anecdote of startling transition from penury to opulence. As the stock rose day after day, the last moorings of prudence were cut or slipped. Merchants who had lived content with safe and steady gains yielded to the masterful temptation. People who had never speculated before staked all they had, in a burst of uncontrollable greed, upon the market. Higher, still higher, rose the stock. Madder, still madder, grew the community. The women felt the ignoble passion, and became wilder than the men. Wives to whom homesteads had been secured hypothecated their title-deeds. Women of fashion, who had nothing else, pledged their jewels. Chattel. mortgages on household furniture were recklessly taken. In the back rooms of the brokers’ offices were whispered stories involving even more reckless and desperate traffickings. In short, there was nothing which had any realizable value which was not sought to be exchanged for the stock of the mine which was the centre of this unparalleled boom. As usual in such cases, the whole line of stocks shared the upward movement, though to a smaller extent, and during those memorable two weeks many thousands lived in a fever, supported only by the impetuous lust of gain.
The excitement brought to the surface the basest traits of human nature, and this means a great deal when it is said of such a mining centre as that to which reference is made here; for in the normal atmosphere of all such places there is found predominating a hardness, an unscrupulousness, a moral laxity, which perhaps attract the more attention because little pains is taken to disguise or conceal them. Inquire into the history of the men who have prospered most in these towns, and common report will respond with a catalogue of deeds which elsewhere would be called crimes, but here are regarded as proofs of special capacity, — at least if the general treatment of the accused individuals may be taken as an evidence of the existing public opinion. But the actions ascribed to these successful men are not such as many would be proud of. Here a millionaire is charged with deliberately ruining his own brother. There a mine-owner is said to have procured the “disappearance” of a rival speculator. A third is accused of robbing widows and orphans. A fourth bears the repute of habitually cheating his own hands. A fifth is said to have abandoned a whole gang of miners to a horrible death, in order to conceal the discovery of a new ore-body until he could “fix” the market. Such are the stories told in ordinary times; but during the great excitement the whole moral code seemed to have been thrown aside. It was a scramble in which no pity, no mercy, no consideration whatever, was shown by any one to any one. Society was at once fermenting and disintegrating. The servant-girls who waited at table might be, sometimes actually were, able to buy up their employers. The miner might represent more capital for the moment than the mine-owner. No other subject was spoken of than the great, the all-pervading “boom.” All business save that of gambling was practically suspended. Day by day the stock rose, and day by day the whirl, the race, the frantic struggle, grew wilder and more furious. A distinguished writer has recently, in the pages of Blackwood, embodied her conception of a state of punishment after death in a powerful description of “The Land of Darkness.” To her it seems that a brutal, open, absorbing selfishness must be the condition of existence in what is called hell. Had she visited the great mining centre while the “boom” was flourishing, it would have been revealed to her acute intelligence that the condition which appears so diabolical to her can exist in its most pronounced form on this side of the grave, and that modern civilization, so far from considering its manifestation alarming, views it as proof of the energies and capacities which belong to “progress.”
Fortune dangled her richest prizes before the eyes of these people, and forthwith they shook off their humanity as an encumbering garment. What their vilest lusts made them, that they appeared. They were willing to sacrifice every one and everything to attain their end while the stock continued to rise. But what can be said of their panic when the truth slowly made its way from the bottom of the mine; when the boom collapsed, and the market, which, even though its rise was unprecedented, had taken two weeks to reach the topmost figure, fell with the swiftness of an avalanche! The rush to sell was then as fierce as that to buy had previously been. The wrecks were many, and the salvages rare. In a few hours fortunes which had towered colossal crumbled into nothingness. Once more the multitude had been duped and fleeced. Once more the few emerged gorged with iniquitous gains. But though curses loud and deep were showered upon the heads of the successful swindlers, they lost no caste by what they had done. How could they, indeed, when every man in the community felt in his heart that he would have played the same game had he held the same cards? The shock was heavy and the ruin widespread, but no useful lesson was learned. The plundered grew perhaps, if possible, more callous and more resolved thenceforth to miss no opportunity of pushing their fortunes. The utterly crushed were simply thrust aside, out of the way, and knew their time too well to protest or complain. As to the small minority of prosperous robbers, they made their peace with their victims by spending money lavishly; by exhibiting a barbarous ostentation; by thus reviving in the breasts of the unlucky the ideal toward which all their being turned in waking hours, and encouraging them with the renewed hope of some day emulating these extravagances by the aid of just such villainies as made them possible to their present perpetrators.
Why is this episode introduced here? Because it is an “abstract and brief chronicle of the time;” because it epitomizes the tendencies which dominate this age; because it presents without a mask the working of those forces which shape the character and direct the course of modern civilization. As it has been said that the aim and intent of the whole system of English jurisprudence is to assemble twelve honest men in a jury-box, so it may be said that the whole aim and intent of the social system of to-day is to facilitate the acquisition of material wealth. The cult of riches is the prevailing one, and the main test of merit is success in acquiring them. It is inevitable, in the circumstances, that the means by which wealth is obtained should be a secondary consideration, and it is equally inevitable that indifference to the morality of the methods employed should tend to the extension of immorality. The setting up of wealth as an end has important consequences. Viewed in that light, the pursuit becomes not only a servitude, but an endless one. For it is one of the penalties of greed that its capacity for satisfaction diminishes with its growth. Contentment at any given point is impossible to the man who devotes himself to money-making. Long after he has amassed enough to satisfy every reasonable want or fancy, the lust of possession constrains him to continue in his work, and at length he is as much a slave to his wealth as are the masses to their poverty. The idea that money brings happiness is common to all but those who have it. They may either be the slaves or the fools of fortune. In both relations they testify to the vanity of the expectation which places its goal in the possession of a plethoric bank account.
The ruling passion being the lust of riches, however, it gives the tone to everything, fixes and emphasizes the materialism of the time, and lowers the general standard of living. It is this dominant tendency which is mainly responsible for the decline of conscientiousness, for the moral dry-rot which is so marked a modern characteristic. It is this which develops and systematizes the myriad hypocrisies, deceits, and shams which honeycomb conventional existence. It is this which condemns millions to careers of false pretense, brummagem gentility, sordid cares, trivial yet poignant rivalries, absurd parade, vulgar ostentation, and real discomfort. It is this which first deadens and then destroys the intellectual and the spiritual life; which condemns the rich to frivolous, fantastic, and useless lives, and perverts the poor by filling them with a foolish envy of conditions no sane man or woman should desire to enter. It is this which creates that fury of competition whence spring the brood of petty dishonesties termed “tricks of trade.” It makes politics corrupt. It fills public life with demagogues and impostors. It hardens men’s hearts, weakens their natural affections, saps their consciences, makes them strangers to truth and honor and integrity. Because of it we have made Christianity a hissing and a reproach in the mouths of heathen races. Because of it we have a century-long record of dishonor in our Indian relations. Because of it New England rum outfaces the New England Bible on the banks of the Congo. Because of it chicanery flourishes right and left. Because of it business men think themselves justified in adopting the frauds of their least scrupulous rivals. Because of it adulteration is employed whenever possible. Because of it the claims of socialism for a redistribution of the general possessions appeal with increasing force to the masses, who learn from example that duty is only a name, and that the one paramount obligation resting upon humanity is to “put money in its purse.”
The church appeals in vain to a generation steeped in materialism, and the more vainly for that it is itself infected with the general taint. Costly church edifices, costly preachers, luxurious surroundings, may and do minister to the thoroughly worldly tastes of those who adhere to nominal religion for conventional and selfish reasons, but they do not and cannot foster spirituality, nor weaken in any degree the hold which Mammon has upon the world. Intellect in the pulpit will always be attractive, and may depend upon the kind of appreciation which materialism tenders to all it approves of. It will be paid handsomely. It will be treated deferentially. It will be rewarded with a share of the things which materialism considers most precious and desirable. It will be honored with the social distinctions which flatter the least spiritual tendencies in the sacerdotal nature. So it will become a part of the worldliness its function is to oppose, and a sanction of the ignoble frivolities it should condemn unsparingly. Wealth seduces and neutralizes the church. The spirit of the time broods as heavily upon the altar as upon the desk.
To succeed in life is to get rich. That is the all but universal understanding of the term “success.” To this the lives of most of us are deliberately devoted, and if we do not fail, it matters nothing to our generation what soils and stains we have contracted on the way; how base, and mean, and narrow our practices have made us; how densely ignorant we may be of everything worth knowing; how dead our hearts may be to generous emotions. So we be but rich, all else passes for trifles, and a dull, stupid, low-minded, and groveling age welcomes our congenial qualities and defects. How precious should this gift of riches be, when we consider the extent of the degradation to which the pursuit of it subjects us! Candor and truth, justice and equity, self-respect and faithfulness, all the qualities which go to make honorable manhood, in short, must be sunk out of sight, done violence to, or perhaps even surrendered altogether, in order to attain the desired end. Putting on the armor of selfishness, we address ourselves to a career which gradually extinguishes the desire for anything better, and of which the most that can be said is that it prepares us in some way for the illusions which crown it. But what a reason for existence, what a motive for action, what an incentive to energy, this cult of wealth is, to figure, at the close of the nineteenth century, as the very best the cream and flower of the human race can attain to!
The cream and flower of the human race, — perhaps that is not, after all, a lofty height to have reached. For, as Tennyson has it,
Many a million of ages have gone to the making of man:
He now is first, but is he the last? Is he not too base?
There have been material civilizations even more imposing in many ways than the present one. If when they flourished the standard of average comfort was lower than now, assuredly there was higher ambition, richer imagination, and more solid execution in the only kind of work which survives the tooth of Time. Some of these civilizations have disappeared so completely that we know them only by casual references in classic literature, or by fragments of fictile art or architecture. From many of the surviving architectural remains, however, we infer a conscientiousness in the carrying out of such designs the like of which has ceased to exist, while in the construction of simple engineering works, such as military highways, a perfection was attained which would now be thought superfluous. So flimsy are our creations, and so low our ambitions. Roman roads made sixteen centuries ago still present firm and successful resistance to the elements. Luxor and Karnac and the rock-cut temples of India still offer to us examples of an honesty and majesty in creative work which in the permanence of their results may well appear almost supernatural to this unstable generation. Is there anything produced by modern hands that will last as long? Is there reason to believe that if, through some catastrophe, man was eliminated from this continent, and his work here was left to the influences of sun and storm, frost and wind, a thousand years, the explorers of the future would find decipherable traces of this nineteenth-century society?
It is impossible to doubt the tremendous energy and fierce vitality which characterized the bygone civilizations. Neither in the amassing of wealth nor in the expansion of luxury has the New World surpassed the Old. The pursuit of riches is never likely to be crowned with more success than it was under Imperial Rome, and in the prodigality and ingenuity of expenditure, Cairo and Alexandria could have given lessons to the Paris of to-day. Electricity and steam are the main distinguishing marks of the present age, and they have contributed principally to the saving of time, in the interest of that feverish race for money whose pace they have so greatly quickened. But though the old civilizations impressed themselves so deeply upon their periods; though they carried the materialist theory as far as it can be carried; though they acquired and exercised vigorously the most comprehensive powers; though in their palmy days they could see no possibility of decay, they have vanished, and some of them so utterly that, for all objective traces remaining, they might never have been. We flatter ourselves that no such destiny awaits us. We assure ourselves that the advances we have made guarantee us against decline and oblivion. Yet history abounds with examples which might well teach us humility and diffidence, and self-analysis can add nothing to the confidence with which we address ourselves to the future.
The growth of modern civilization has apparently tended most strongly to the diffusion of opportunities for the acquisition of material possessions, and upon the evidence of that diffusion we are prone to pride ourselves and to rely as upon a proof that we are in the right path. At the same time invention has been stimulated to multiply the wants of men by increasing their desires. The discontent which finds expression among the least successful, in propositions to change the whole scheme of things, has no hopeful implications. It is not the dissatisfaction arising from insight into the hollowness of the present situation, but that which springs from baffled cupidity. It is not by the conquest of self that the modern reformer seeks to improve his generation: it is by some patent plan for opening a royal road to riches. Hitherto force of character, whether good or evil, has been held necessary to the attainment of material prosperity, and failure has been mainly attributable to inefficiency. Now it is claimed that there ought to be no such distinctions, but that the incompetent, the idle, and the forceless have equal rights in the good enjoyed by society. There is no cure for this kind of discontent in the philosophy of materialism. On the contrary, it breeds just such states of mind. For if wealth is really the be-all and the end-all of life, if this is the only aim justifying the unreserved expenditure of human energy, it follows that those who from any cause are excluded from effective competition for the prize have a right to protest; and not only to protest, but to do their best to force themselves into the running.
This, too, is an inevitable sequence of the prevailing system. We practically hold that the more wants a man feels, the better off he is. We point to the complexity of the needs of civilized man as evidence of his civilization. No doubt there is consistency in this, for all that the wealthiest can do with their wealth is to use their imagination in creating new fancies, then make wants of those fancies, and so surround themselves with the superfluities which we call luxuries. Observe, however, that there is in this process no more real progress, no more real dignity, than in the methods by which an African potentate satisfies his cruder but hardly less noble greed. Nor is there always even greater barbarity in the savage example. To the unreflecting eye the spectacle of a Fan chief wearing a necklace of human teeth, that of a Dyak dwelling ornamented with human heads, or that of the lodge-pole of a Red Indian hung with a bunch of scalps, is conspicuously savage and horrible. But modern civilized society is infested with men whose possessions are built on the sufferings and misery of their fellows, and however sumptuous their habitations may be, the luxury and beauty of form and color which adorn them represent, no less than the ghastly trophies of the cannibal, the head-hunter, and the wild Indian, a course of destruction and of plunder.
It is one of the most significant facts of the material civilization that its supreme code—that, namely, upon which what it terms “business” is based—should declare the union of friendship with the sacred cult of money to be inadmissible. In the counting-house, the factory, the exchange, there must be no entangling alliances. There, in the arcana of “business,” all pretenses, save those which conduce to material advantage, are to be put aside. Popular philosophy takes the form of proverbs and sententious sayings, which, if not always polite and delicate, are generally terse and to the point. This popular sentiment long ago expressed, in its crude way, the prevailing idea of the way the world wags in the rough but expressive words, “Every man for himself, and the Devil take the hindmost.” It is upon this principle that we usually conduct business in this progressive and hurried age. It may, perhaps, be thought somewhat curious that the habitual putting off of friendship, as Mohammedans put off their slippers on entering the mosque, in proceeding to business, should not have given rise to some suspicion of the nature of the cult that requires such a surrender. It is, however, but the last step in a threefold descent. The first is from the religion we profess to the religion we practice: the second is from the family code to the social code; the third is from the latter to the ethics of “business.” Perhaps the graduation of the descent helps to conceal it from most of us. Perhaps the dazzling effulgence which breaks from the shrine of Mammon blinds his worshipers to the nature of the approaches by which they reach his feet. Such, however, is the fact. The principle of business is selfishness in its most open and undisguised form: selfishness ministering to its own rapacity by a hundred base and shameful tricks and chicaneries; selfishness assisting itself with deceit and fraud, with overreaching and misrepresentation selfishness pluming itself upon superior intelligence when it effects a roguery by playing upon the trustfulness of another; selfishness hardily sneering at integrity and scoffing at honor as an outworn imbecility. There is really nothing too base to be perpetrated in the name of business. It knows no conscience: witness the dispatch of ship-loads of rum to poison uncivilized races. It knows no patriotism: witness the eagerness with which in all wars traders have supplied their country’s enemies with arms and munitions; and witness, in our own time, the manner in which rebellious Indian tribes have been repeatedly furnished by American citizens with arms wherewith to fight American soldiers. When the North was in death-grapple with the South, it supplied our men in the field with shoes that could not be worn, with shoddy clothing, with fraud in every shape an army contract could cover. In times of peace it calls in adulteration to its aid, and poisons whatever can be sophisticated. The spirit of the age is shown forth in the invention of oleomargarine, or sham butter, and especially in the arguments used to defend and justify the product. The haste to be rich, indeed, debases everything and demoralizes every one. There is no great line of modern development which is not branded by the rank dishonesty this lust produces. It flourishes rankly in governmental affairs. Wherever the sense of responsibility is weakened by the absence of personal headship and ownership, fraud has entered freely. The land system of the country is honeycombed with it. The history of the distribution of the public lands is a history of continued and gigantic robberies. There has never been an issue of land-scrip to any class, soldiers, Indians, or civilians, or to States for educational purposes, which has not been made the machinery for effecting these knaveries. Government timber has been stolen as generally as government land. Railroad enterprises, too, have frequently been made the cover for extraordinary rapacity and dishonesty in the same directions. All this is known far and wide, but it signifies nothing. It is in no sense a figure of speech that any man may become rich by positive stealing: that the truth concerning his manner of obtaining his money may be generally known; and that not only will he not lose caste by his immoral methods, but a large number of people will admire him for his “smartness,” which, being interpreted, perhaps means successful roguery.
It would surely be unreasonable to expect that riches so obtained, or, if not so obtained, got under a system which permits such modes of acquisition, should be used worthily, and usually they are not. In considering the actual employment of them, however, it becomes necessary to examine another side of our material civilization. Thus far the part taken by man in it has been alone considered. The part taken by woman is not less important, and must be brought into the general account. The fetich of man is money. The fetich of woman is fashion. The spiritual capacities of women are certainly larger than those of men. Their nature is less material and what is called practical. They perceive more than they reason out, and their intuitions are often, if not always, safer and sounder than men’s inductions. But they have been for so many centuries the suppressed sex that they have not yet learned to use their liberty wisely, and at present they cultivate frivolity not less assiduously than men pursue wealth. Fashion is primarily imitation, and imitation nearly always implies not only deficient originality, but inability to perceive the relations between external conditions and the right methods of adaptation to them. The imitation here, moreover, is grotesquely defiant of all the principles of art and taste. Changes, the origin of which is really fortuitous, as for example the discarding of gloves on certain occasions because a European prince once happened to be unprovided with them, are adopted without hesitation or question. Fashions first introduced in order to conceal a deformity in the person of some foreign queen or princess are forthwith copied with blind servility by American women who have no such defects or blemishes to disguise. Costumes first invented to make some short person appear taller, or to reduce the apparent height of some tall one, are taken up by short and tall alike, without the least regard to fitness. These, however, though evidences of the folly of fashion, are its least important effects. The most serious mischief wrought by it consists in the denaturalizing of millions of lives in condemning them to perennial sham and imposture. Perhaps half the misery which modern society endures is caused in this way. A senseless desire to appear better off than we are makes nine tenths of us squander our means in trying to produce an erroneous impression upon our neighbors. As a rule, few people are really deceived by such devices, but infinite harm is done to the characters and consciences of those who practice them. Everywhere are seen persons who, possessing ample means for a natural and wholesome life, throw away their opportunities of comfort and happiness, and exist in a sort of haze of false pretenses, for no better object than the gratification of a vanity as purely animal as that which prompts the Central African savage to plaster his hair with mud and to smear his body with bullock-fat. Under such a scheme of life no elevating influences can establish themselves. The practice of inanities becomes a gauge of the whole existence. The artificial wholly supplants the natural, and the shams which fashion requires color everything and give everything the same false character. Nothing more tedious, dreary, and hollow can be imagined than the lives of numbers who yield themselves to this debasing cult. When, too, the pursuit of fashion is made the excuse for a more frenetic chase after wealth, the results of the combination are most melancholy.
Yet the pinnacle of ambition for scores of thousands of women, whose husbands are still fighting for prosperity, is leadership in this kind of life; and when the battle is won, and they find the means in their hands, they hasten to realize their dream, and think that it will bring contentment to them. No doubt the same might have been said, nay, was said, of the women who lived two thousand years ago. There is, indeed, no indictment capable of being brought against human society which is not hoary with age. But the significance of this seems to be that when we speak of the progress of the race we are too often guilty of gratuitous assumptions; for if to-day the vices and defects which aroused the disgust and anger of Juvenal still flourish rankly, the advance made in the interval must have been much less considerable than our conceit inclines us to claim. The fact of the persistence of old evils and social blunders and crudities in the government and conduct of life points, besides, to the keynote of this whole discussion, namely, the danger that a civilization tending so strongly toward unmixed materialism may encounter the fate of the extinct civilizations which followed the same path. The question whether we can or shall outlive and free ourselves from all these deadly obstacles to any growth worth the making may be considered hereafter. At present we are concerned chiefly with the truth that we have certainly not yet escaped them.
The end which society places before itself is pleasure, but it is pleasure in its least desirable forms. Wealth, it might bethought, is counted as of little potency, if it cannot save its possessors the trouble of thinking; for there is nothing they cultivate so little as thought. Sensuous and sensual gratification, ministrations to the lust of the eyes, and to the demands of the body for soft lying and savory eating and agreeable drinking, make the sum of the rewards for how many lives of painful toil and accumulation. It is the irony of fate that the man who gives himself wholly to money-getting thereby incapacitates himself for any rational enjoyment of his fortune when it is made. As a rule such men discover at last that there is no pleasure for them but in their business; and they continue to amass without purpose and almost automatically, until death forces them to realize the ephemeral character of their work, and its utter futility for any possible future that may lie before them. The pleasure of society, however, is a will-o’-the-wisp, a phantom which eludes capture, and the pursuit of which is maintained for a time only by the vitality of youth and the hope with which nature reinforces the spring-time of life. To such as reflect, it is a mockery and a delusion. That it is so eagerly followed perhaps indicates how little reflection is really performed. But indeed the tendencies of the age are away from all courses which require serious effort. If pleasure declines into folly, it is in accord with other social phenomena. The pace at which the world is going seems to exclude thoroughness, as it is gradually excluding conscientiousness. The multitude demand short cuts to everything, patent appliances for skimming the surface of all knowledge. To meet this demand, every department of literature has now its condensing apparatus, and epitomized classics, histories, art works, scientific works, pour from the press. The general impatience to get on cannot tolerate persistent study in any direction, nor does the general desire for increased knowledge apparently reach the height of a wish to master anything. The explanation of this superficiality is to be found in the influence of the prevailing cult upon all classes. Money being the aim of the majority, it has come to pass that the ethical character of the methods by which money is obtained has gradually been less regarded. From this to a general slackening in the performance of duty, the descent is natural and indeed inevitable. The common desire being fixed on gain, there is constantly less care bestowed on that which is to be exchanged for gain. Hence slovenly craftsmanship, dishonesty in manufactures, short weight and adulteration, free use of inferior materials, misrepresentation, fraud, and deceit in all manner of transactions. Hence, too, unfaithfulness in service, the due doing of work being grudged or shirked, yet higher valuation being put on the depreciated performance.
Everywhere the influences of the time tend to the growth of a selfishness which intensifies the materialism whence these influences proceed, and so the vicious circle is produced and maintained. Never in the world’s history was Carpe diem more emphatically the motto of the day. One of the most common of current phrases is that of having a good time, and too generally it is employed as an excuse for some gross evasion of duty, some ignoble yielding to a shameful egotism, some contemptible concession to a self-indulged, pithless inclination. The seekers after “a good time” have cast off their responsibilities. If they are parents, they let their children scramble up anyhow, pretending, as an excuse for their own cowardly laziness, that they want the children too to “have a good time.” If they are young men or women, they act upon the theory that the function of their parents is to minister to their pleasure, and that they owe no duty to any one. Destitute of moral stamina; frothy, frivolous, unstable, and infirm in all their purposes and deeds; so wrapped in self that they are incapable of perceiving the hideous ugliness of their own characters, these pseudo-epicureans may well provoke the gravest doubts as to the quality of the generation that is to owe its origin to them. But they symbolize and give tone to their time. The same greed and the same low moral standard which have produced them may be traced in all the agencies which have arisen to cater to them. Their tastes support a luxury peculiar to the period, — a luxury characterized by evasion of thought and intellectual discipline of any kind. Popular preferences lie in the direction of whatever gratifies sensuous perception without calling upon the brain. Thus it is that in amusements the lightest, flimsiest, but most garish and glittering spectacular pieces hold the stage longest; that Barnum’s circus so easily eclipses Shakespeare; that melodrama extinguishes drama; that in art the baldest realism is the most attractive, and the ideal would perish but for the vogue which authoritative criticism has secured for a handful of its few representatives, and the ambition of the wealthy to appear instructed in such matters. What happens when such guidance is lacking, and the untutored predilections of picture buyers control the situation, was illustrated in quite a striking way at a recent art sale in New York.
It is significant that the nineteenth century has produced little in the lines governed by the creative imagination. Its fecundity in the direction of material science has been prodigious. In all that ministers to and facilitates the massing of wealth and its distribution, the activity of invention has been unparalleled. The power of the human intellect in overcoming natural difficulties, in mastering time and space, in multiplying the productive capacity of mechanical forces, in, extending the area of commerce and settlement, in increasing the average of comfort, in enlarging the field of luxury, in expanding the purchasing power of money, was never so signally manifested. Nevertheless, this century of unprecedented growth in material prosperity has been but a barren one in things not material. In the ages which produced original imaginative work, it is to be noted that the masters were dependent, not upon the past, but upon the spirit of their own time. The masterpieces of painting, sculpture, architecture, exceeded all that had preceded them, as Shakespeare exceeded his predecessors and his contemporaries. The cathedral builders of Europe were the followers of no school. The poems in stone which they raised were the expression at once of lofty spiritual belief and a strong sense of duty. Freedom and grasp of imagination are not less conspicuous in their work than a faithfulness in execution scarcely comprehensible to-day. Strikes and eight-hour laws are incompatible with the survival of the spirit which conceived and the conscientiousness which achieved those noble and stately fanes. Modern architecture has no such gifts for mankind, nor are such gifts ever vouchsafed to men who work with their faces turned backward. The modern city, in its exterior aspect, is a tangle of imitations. The century has no style of its own. It can but ape those which are gone by. Left to itself, it fails to produce anything but the most hideous, soulless, brutally uncompromising realism; and even when it leans upon an idealism which it seldom penetrates, its copies, however servile, want life, and are too often deformed by the flatness and insipidity of a Chinese landscape.
It is the same with modern fashions. They are as independent of artistic feeling and true taste, for the most part, as those of the Zulus and Hottentots. Too frequently they defy and outrage every principle of art, and are not less graceless than ridiculous. In the abject submission with which these fashions are received and indued may be seen a trustworthy gauge of the prevailing standard of sense and fitness. Our clothing is as ugly as our houses, and our houses only less ugly than our public buildings because smaller. In decoration, confusion is worse confounded. Greek, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Oriental, French, English, Mauresque, all styles are jumbled together with a catholicity wholly barbarous and unintelligent. In illustration, particularly book illustration, there is a common belief that we have done something to be proud of, and we never tire of telling one another that we lead the world here. Perhaps we do, though the assertion is by no means indisputable; but even if we do, it does not therefore follow that we have cause for much congratulation. We may seem to have accomplished a good deal in illustration, but possibly at a cost exceeding the value of the present gain. For it is in what are called “processes” that our chief advances have been made, and these are mechanical modes of producing tolerably close imitations of engraving and etching. They are to engraving and etching what chromolithography is to painting. They indeed produce much closer copies than chromolithography has yet done, but, after all, process work is in a large measure spurious. It is a means of democratizing art, of furnishing innumerable impressions of a plate, but it is also a means of deteriorating and degrading art. No process work can ever be equal in value to real etching or engraving, but the processes may crowd the genuine artists to the wall. Since, however, it is certain that the new methods are more profitable than the old ones, doubtless they will hold the position they have gained, no matter at what cost to true art.
It has been deplored of late that poetry appears to be decaying, and various ingenious efforts have been made to account for this. The real cause for wonder is that poetry should have stayed so long in a world which has rejected nearly everything upon which it battens. Materialism is the death of song, and the more prosperous it grows the more prosaic does it become. Hitherto, indeed, we have been living largely upon our inheritance in this regard. We could not at once exhaust the great store of imagination which descended to us from ages that preserved ideals and did not wholly exclude the spiritual from existence, and upon that ancient stock our poets have drawn. But now we are approaching the end of this inheritance, and as we begin to fall back upon the original products of our own time, their aridity strikes a death-chill to the heart of poetry, and it fades and withers. There is, however, so nicely shaded a gradation in the processes by which, as in the working of “dissolving views,” one tendency disappears and another takes its place, that paradoxical occurrences sometimes mark the transition. Thus among the leaders of scientific materialism to-day may be seen men of genius, who unconsciously derive from the idealism of their ancestors an imaginative force and brilliancy which they employ in the destruction of the influence furnishing their strongest and most effective weapons. The scientific imagination owes its vitality to the ideal which it denies. It is to this dishonored ideal that the world is under obligations for whatever it enjoys and possesses which is not at bottom barbarism.
But it is only in what are called practical matters that we press forward and keep our gaze to the front. In all that pertains to the ideal we have our eyes fixed upon the past. We live over again the speculations of our forefathers. We are content to be indebted to those who came before us. The age resembles an athlete whose muscular system has been developed with the utmost care, while little attention has been bestowed upon the intellectual side of him. It is robust and vigorous and capable beyond question in the material sense, but when that is said, all is said. Our science, like our social philosophy and practical life, is emphatically exoteric. Professing complete impartiality and a single-minded desire to ascertain the truth, it has begged the whole question as to the nature of man by confining its researches to externals. Ohne Phosphor kein Gedanke, says Büchner. Perhaps his colleagues do not go quite so far as that. Perhaps they profess a diffidence which would be more to their credit did their habitual utterances permit us to believe in its reality. In any case they virtually indorse the German man of science in preferring as a working hypothesis the material theory. “We cannot,” say they, “affirm positively that mind and matter are identical, but we have not found any convincing evidence to the contrary.” One reason why they have not found such evidence is that they have not sought it with any enthusiasm, or in the only place where it can be hopefully looked for. Psychology is the least developed science among the Western nations. Its students revolve like squirrels in their wheel, and they have not succeeded yet in attaining an equal height with Plato, nor have they reached more definite knowledge than the astronomer-poet of Persia, Omar Khayyám, had acquired eight hundred years ago.
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and saint, and heard great argument
About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same door where in I went.
Is there any more profitable outcome to be looked for from modern psychologic science? Or how can that be truly a science of soul which depends on a biology the inductions of which are materialist? There are two paths which lead from nineteenth-century science and philosophy: on the guide-post of one may be read Agnosticism; and Pessimism, on that of the other. Herbert Spencer on the one hand, Schopenhauer on the other, teach us that speculation which proceeds beyond the knowable is futile, and that the knowable is bounded by the demonstrations of science; while we are consoled for the loss of faith and hope by the assurance that, after all, life is of no particular consequence, and in effect little more than a mistake, perpetuated through man’s egotism. Schopenhauer, indeed, has travestied and perverted the philosophy of the East in making of it a support to his pessimistic system; but agnostic no less than pessimistic philosophy tends to confirm and strengthen the materialist tendencies, which prevail more and more.
There is nothing intrinsically humiliating in the doctrine of evolution. Mankind might contemplate without mortification and accept without loss of self-respect the theory of descent from the ascidian, might acknowledge without repulsion their relationship to the anthropoid ape, if the curve of progress were plainly carrying them farther and farther from these lowly origins, and bringing them as clearly nearer and nearer a higher order of existence. But what if “the heirs of all the ages, in the foremost files of time,” inherit with their other possessions tendencies, the development of which, while vastly increasing the external attractiveness and splendor of life, are fixing the race in a line of advance which ends in a cul-de-sac? What if the material civilization which makes so imposing a figure at present, which is so full of promise of a certain kind, which tempts so strongly to a belief in the perfectibility of conditions, is really a declining and not a rising civilization? What if the incessant stimulation of man’s lust of possession, of his wants, of his selfishness, which so-called progress involves, should so reinforce the latent brute in all of us, so kill out the latent spirit, as to arrest healthy development? Something very like this must have happened to the nations of antiquity, the lustre of whose progress shone like lamps among their contemporaries, yet which sank and disappeared utterly. Can we indeed expect with any confidence that a purely material civilization will go on indefinitely flourishing? Abstract the spiritual qualities from man, throw him back altogether upon his instincts, and he does not sink merely to the level of the beasts; he becomes their inferior. For if the beasts are “vacant of our glorious gains” in intelligence, at least their instincts guide them more surely than the partially atrophied instincts of man guide him. The beasts know when they have enough; man never does. The beasts avoid excess; man does not. The beasts recognize the things in nature which are for their good; man has no such gift. Take from man, therefore, his spiritual part, and his course is endangered, perhaps brought to a standstill, perhaps even turned back. But the spiritual side of man is at present quite generally neglected, and all the energy available is being expended on the education of his lower, that is to say his material side. Some of the consequences of this have already been examined. There are thinkers who hold that the best guarantee for steady progress consists in the infinitude of human wants and desires. But if all the wants and desires nourished and expressed are physical and material, does that make no difference in the soundness of the hypothesis? How much does the world owe to the ideal? is a question which can hardly be answered candidly without casting serious doubt upon the practicability of permanent progress on the lines of materialism; and yet it is assuredly on those lines that it is now advancing, and perhaps more wholly upon those lines than at any former period.
A chief danger of the situation consists in the fact that all the most potent evils of materialism tend to feed and fatten upon their own substance, and to perpetuate themselves after the manner of certain low organisms in the physical world. It would not, for instance, require more than one or two generations of undisciplined self-seekers to establish a breed of egoists more self-centred, more void of sympathy, than any form of advanced civilization has yet known, and the influence of such men and women upon any society can be easily perceived. Toleration of fraud and mendacity, for a comparatively brief period, would produce equally marked consequences. Nor is the effect less in minor phenomena. In a country where the ballot is the ultimate expression of popular will, it is only necessary greatly to stimulate the rapacity of the masses to bring about, in due course, legislation involving confiscation of the possessions of the rich. In the Greek republics this kind of social war frequently occurred, and naturally, when matters reached that extremity, the only law capable of enforcement was that of force majeure; so sometimes the poor overcame the rich, and sometimes the rich overcame the poor, and whichever side was victor practiced hideous cruelties upon the vanquished. The history of the Paris Commune proves that the lowest depths of savagery are not beyond the possible descent of civilized societies, and we cannot therefore solace ourselves with the flattering assurance that like causes would not produce like effects among us. The decline in the sense of duty tends to similar consequences. When responsibility decays, regard for the rights of others is sure to be weakened. Communities which tolerate the practice of abuses upon themselves are apt to manifest loose morality in general. Good citizenship implies self-respect and full recognition of the neighbor’s rights, together with equally clear perception of one’s own and one’s fellow’s obligations. Those who are careless of what is due to themselves will be not less apathetic concerning what is due to the common-wealth. But incivism is the fruit of unsocial selfishness. Whoever refuses to do his duty as a citizen does so because he is absorbed in his personal occupations, and, as a rule, is thus absorbed by the greed of gain. As all force is masterful, selfish and greedy men exercise a strong influence on the community, and their concentration of purpose usually secures their ends. But let the masses also acquire this energy of acquisitiveness, and apply it through the ballot, and the strong purpose of the selfish minority must be borne down by the pressure of the much greater though similar force. What redemption there could be for a community or a nation so circumstanced it is difficult to see. All reversion tends to spread. Savagery superimposed upon civilization can only be met by savagery. Inter arma silent leges.
Even in the efforts made from time to time to stem the evils which are most conspicuous and most mischievous, the influence of the prevailing tendencies is apparent. In legislation the disposition is towards paternalism, repression, physical coercion, as remedies for moral ills. Habits and appetites which are the growth of ages are attacked by police measures. The belief that human nature can be controlled altogether from without, though contradicted by unbroken experience, is at the bottom of this line of action. In the Middle Ages such a belief led the Church to adopt the policy of coercion, and in so doing to make men hypocrites, and to materialize and degrade religion. To-day we must go to Central Arabia and study the Wahhabee dynasty, if we wish to know how such a policy really affects human life. Wahhabeeism is the Puritanism of the East, and it is undoubtedly preparing the way for a reaction as marked as the Puritanism of the Commonwealth period produced in the period of the Restoration. The idea that men may be made good by statute is one of those which have been most frequently disproved by experiment, yet it recurs with a persistence which argues ill for intellectual development. “Knowledge grows, but Wisdom lingers,” the poet has written, and the fact mentioned is a striking illustration of the truth of this observation. But reliance upon external influence is a note of the time. It is seen under many aspects. Especially is it accountable for the dependence of parents upon organized educational agencies for the kind of training which it is impossible to give elsewhere than in the home. For all spiritual development has its origin there, and in the absence of purifying and ennobling home influences there is no school or college which can impart this first and highest and most precious of all instruction.
Affection, reverence, self-sacrifice, modesty, veracity, the power of estimating things truly, appreciation of the higher life, every elevating tendency, every worthy aspiration, flourish best on the family hearth. But if their natural habitat is empty; if mean selfishness, and silly frivolity, and servitude to appearances, and the myriad hypocrisies, shams, and littlenesses of sordid convention, fill and control the place, alas for the generation so defrauded of its sacred birthright, so delivered helpless to the materialism of the age! There is no remedy in the extension of educational machinery. We may exchange the classics for modern languages; we may make more room for physical science; we may introduce courses on the science of government; we may pay more attention to political economy; we may add technical schools to the common ones: but when we have done our best, we shall have failed to evolve a substitute for the only education which gives life a significance higher and broader than that of Descartes’s automatism.
The exceeding sluggishness which characterizes human progress, and the doubt which exists as to its genuineness, are both attributable to the deadening and perverting influence of what, for the convenience of designation, may be called Externalism. The disposition to attempt all reforms from without has not only prevented real progress, but discredited its promoters. The endeavor to eliminate desire by restricting action has always had the same consequences. It has put a premium on deceit and inflamed every destructive passion. The final results of such experiments have been distinctly lowering to the moral standard. On the other hand, the permanent and salutary advances made by the race have been from within outward; the effects, that is to say, of conviction and persuasion producing volitional action. That which men have willed to do, because convinced that it was right by reflection and observation, has for the most part proved well done, and has become an enduring possession of the race. Herein lies the open secret of true civilization, yet it is neglected. For as any ordered or tolerable existence in a community composed entirely of one sex is unthinkable, so progress of a genuine and permanent character upon purely materialistic principles is inconceivable. As the woman is necessary to the man, so is the spiritual necessary to the material; and as, even when the woman is present, the society stagnates which refuses her a due part in life, so, even when the spiritual is outwardly recognized and reverenced, progress must be artificial and unsound if the higher influences are in practice ignored. The poet may postulate
Some far-off, divine event
To which the whole creation moves,
but what meaning can there be in such a suggestion to a world which is steeped to the lips in materialism; which is becoming more and more atrophied as to its spiritual capacities; which rejoices in the agnostic philosophy that draws the curtain over all the future, and concentrates the lime-light of intellect upon the present alone?
Not entirely upon the present, though. We look back to our ancestors the primates, and pride ourselves upon the gulf that separates us from those humble animals. But on both sides of us there is a missing link; and while the one behind us eludes our most earnest research, the one before us interests us hardly at all. To the question, What is man? the answer of science is, “A little higher than the beasts;” the answer of revelation is, “A little lower than the angels.” But to-day it is science that speaks ex cathedra, while revelation has no more honor among us. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there is no content, nor enduring satisfaction, nor evolution other than animal, nor invention other than sensual, nor culture other than soulless, when spirituality is excluded, or dormant, or paralyzed. Man needs a higher law as a guide to the higher life. The less he feels and recognizes this need, the more materialism takes hold upon him, the less hopeful must his future be, no matter what apparent growth he may be making. Human history in the past has been a monotonous iteration of lessons on this one theme. Poverty, thrift, prosperity, wealth, luxury, corruptness, degradation: in these seven words the fate of many great empires is told. No nation following in that track has escaped the common destiny. Shall we? If we proceed upon the present lines, we have no right to look for a peculiar end to our experiment. The globe is the burial-place of extinct civilizations, and materialism was the disease of which they one and all died. With the experience of the past to warn us, with the knowledge of the present to enlighten us, we ought to escape the danger, if escape be still possible; but neither experience nor knowledge can avail unless they are vitalized by an inspiration which will be sought vainly in externals, and which demands for its evocation a faculty the exercise of which has been so long neglected that it may be difficult of control. Yet in this direction alone is there hope of recovering the right path, and without action to this end there can be no useful resistance to those agencies and influences which are gradually but surely destroying spiritual culture, aspiration, and achievement, and leveling down life to the plane of a debasing materialism.