The Cult of the Passing Hour


OUR epoch is unique in two points: no age has ever moved so fast; no age has ever been so eager, so minute, so devout, a watcher of its own movements. Two questions naturally follow. How far is the progress beneficial? — a broad topic which almost engrosses the energies of current literature, — and what is the moral, the internal, effect of this intensified self-concentration ? To the latter question I confine myself in the present essay.

The action of like — partly indeed of identical — causes has made the world at the same moment a marvelous stage and an incomparable auditorium. The two conditions of spectatorship have met. The rate of change, and the rate of its publication and dissemination, have increased in equal ratio. At the same time that discoveries and inventions multiply, that the world of mechanics, with its client, the world of business, shows a hitherto unsuspected plasticity, the facilities for report and record, the railway, the newspaper, the telegraph, the cable, the ‘wireless’ (already domesticated by a nickname), the kodak, the cinematograph, have made the dissemination of novelties virtually immediate and practically universal. The phrase ‘world-drama’ was threadbare before it became appropriate; but our own day has made history in the larger sense all but literally a drama, that is, a rapid succession of moving events addressed almost on the spot to the immediate, concentrated, sympathetic attention of a vast body of spectators.

The extent and nature of the changes vary with the field. Exploration still supplies its marvels, but with the earth practically ransacked and the planets still inaccessible, advance in this line will be temporarily checked. It is in science, and the industries and pastimes that are its brood, that discovery and invention are perennially active; that innovation, in the strictest and strongest sense, is omnipresent and all-powerful. The steps by which this influence passes from the laboratory to the factory, and from the factory to the hearth and the statehouse, by which a new science generates a new economics, a new politics, and a new ethics, must be traced by those specialists to whom this very movement is ceding the world. In politics, the scope for real novelty — that is, for untried methods — is necessarily more restricted; still, until democracy becomes logically complete by the admission of the last unenfranchised class, even children, to the privilege of the ballot, until socialism becomes logically complete by the inclusion of the last industry, even cookery, in the functions of the state, the field of experiment will remain unexhausted.

The relation of literature, art, and philosophy to the movement called progress is somewhat different. The phases through which they pass are never novel in the sense in which we apply that term to the discovery of the North Pole or of the cinematograph; they are recurrences—broad paraphrases rather than strict translations, however — of earlier phases in the evolution of the race. But the evocation of these phases has been greatly accelerated by the general forward movement of mankind; partly from the instinctive conformity which induces one man to quicken his pace to keep step with his hurrying companion, partly because science is constantly recasting the material out of which literature, art, and philosophy are made. By a natural though unwarranted analogy, novelty in these fields, which represents merely a veering or tacking of the human mind, is invested in the thoughts of men with that authoritative and final character which belongs by right only to actual increment of knowledge, to clear gains in power.

Meanwhile, three checks on the selfmagnifying tendencies of the present moment have been almost simultaneously removed. The location of the source of the religious culture of Western Europe in Palestine in the first century, the reversion of its secular culture to a fountain-head in Greece three or four centuries earlier, the concentration of mighty hopes and fears on the next world, made the glorification of the current spectacle impossible to our forefathers.

In our own day, the virtual abandonment of traditional Christianity, the obsolescence, in spite of interesting and praiseworthy sporadic revivals, of the direct impact of Greek culture on present-day life, the abrogation of the next world as an influence on conduct, have removed the chief obstacles to our submergence by the passing hour.

We should have to resort to barbarism to find another epoch so exclusively and fervidly contemporaneous. In all periods, of course, action and emotion have exalted the present hour; the distinction of our own age lies in the assumption by thought, by study, by our impersonal and unselfish interests, of this strongly contemporaneous direction. The ‘Carpe diem’ of the Latin epicure, the ‘Now is the accepted time’ of the Judaean Paul, we adopt in a new sense, unreconciled with the purposes of either epicure or apostle. We abolish the preterite tense; and the majestically self-centred phrase of the ancient Hebrews, ‘I am,’ might be appropriated to the naming of our divinity.


The tendency has its undoubted benefits. It fosters an alertness of mind similar to that which, in a night of pyrotechnics, scans the whole horizon in search of the undefined point at which the next rocket may ascend. Again, civilized mankind has become less parochial, the bonds of prejudice are relaxed, ambition is quickened and egotism checked by the neighborhood, in a real sense, of great nations and lofty individuals. An American shopkeeper can follow to-day the history of Russia more closely than could its own czar a century ago. We view the earth from a supramundane eminence, so to speak, and it would be both unkind and unfair to recall the name of the personage who first indicated the pinnacle from which the kingdoms of the world and their glory could be collectively surveyed. It might even seem that the contraction in the field of time was offset by the increased command of space, since mental breadth is dependent on variety of objects, and it matters little if history or geography be the specific frame on which the requisite abundance and variety are set forth. The broadening effect in everyday humanity is certainly not obtrusive, but it would be unjust to test any ameliorative force — Christianity, for instance, or democracy — by its outward and visible workings in the constitution of the average man.

The reality of these benefits may be conceded. Many people would add that the conversion of the world into a vast amphitheatre, the presence, not of the entire globe perhaps, but of all that great section of the globe now meshed in the coils of journalism and telegraphy, at practically the same moment, at the great spectacle of contemporary progress, must strongly reinforce the solidarity and further the unification of mankind. Unluckily, this is one of the cases in which the difference between virtual and material presence, the difference between approximate and actual identity of time in the survey, is all-important. Curiosity is a strong incentive but a weak cement, and a partition or an interval is enough to destroy the cohesion of spectatorship. Men must be literally and sensibly together before participation in a great spectacle can exert a distinctly unifying force. Again, the cementing effect of shared experience is inversely proportionate to the number of shareholders : the daily circuit of the sun has no visible effect in the consolidation of humanity. It is not the consolidating efficacy, but the quickening and liberalizing influence, that constitutes the claim of the new tendency to the consideration and approval of mankind.


I proceed to another effect. The cult of the present moment is largely responsible for the break-up of the old-time relations between youth and maturity. For progress means an unstable, a mobile, environment, and the great desideratum in a changing universe is plasticity. But youth, both by character and circumstance, is the plastic time of life, and its flexibility in selfadjustment is aided by its instinctive sympathy with an epoch which mimics the lustihood and suppleness of youth.

In former times the slow-paced world could not keep abreast of the alert individual, and, up to the time of intellectual and physical decay, the strong man found his control of his environment, his mastery of his problem, continuously augmenting. But to-day the growth of his own experience is far less important than facility of access to the far larger body of knowledge which the world, propelled by a new impetus, has accumulated in the meantime. The speed of the world-movement has immeasurably quickened, and, in his competition with mankind, in his race with the race, if the triviality may be pardoned, the able man finds himself overtaken and outstripped, not in his decay, but in the fullness of his activities and the meridian of his powers, at a time when his individual speed is undiminished or even accelerating.

The result of these changes has been the undoing of a long-established and felicitous partition of honor, privilege, and responsibility between the different periods of life. The apportionment of counsel to the old, action to the young, expressed the world’s recognition of a happy equipoise in the relations of the two halves of man’s estate. Nature had been so liberal to youth that the balance was felt to be sanely and graciously preserved in the assignment to age of the leadership in society. A real justice allied itself to a fine courtesy in the custom which associated all titles of respect and honor, senator, signor, señor, sir, with the root of ‘ senex,’ which made ‘Sire’ the designation of royalty and ' Seigneur ’ the title of the godhead. But in the great war between the old and young of which Shelley wrote, the last sortie of youth has reversed the immemorial situation. The expert has asserted his claims, and priority, even in mental competence, is unhesitatingly allotted to youth. The judgment of the man of sixty shares the discredit of his sinews.

The situation is humiliating for the seniors, and not without danger for the young. The self-trust of youth stands in need of the precise corrective which is supplied by the presence of admittedly superior personalities. The repute of hero-worship is likely to survive the cynicism of its assailants, and even the frenzy of its eulogists. Even when the objects are unworthy, it renders the priceless service of providing a nursery for that reverence which a ripening insight may transfer perhaps from the individual to the race, or from men as such to their higher incentives. Our own age all but abolishes this trainingschool.

Nobody can imagine that modernity of training — a trait whose cheapness is indicated by its accessibility to any quick mind in five or six years through merely imitative or assimilative processes — outranks, by any scale except utility, the dear-bought wisdom of a thoughtful and earnest life. Under the present system, the higher moral values, judgment, wisdom, character, sympathy, humility, self-control, are unjustly depressed, while skill and knowledge — values lower in rank — are abnormally exalted. The scale of efficiency inverts, in part, the ethical scale; the moral waste is great, and the premium on character is lowered.

Character, rightly viewed, is itself a professional asset, and its supersession is no slight misfortune. To the extent of the domination of the youthful expert, it seems clear that the stewardship of the world will be passed on from the man of weight, poise, and character, to the mpple, the dexterous, the assimilative man. It may be added that, while the absolute efficiency of an entire profession is probably increased by the new system, the period of perfect equipment for the individual is seriously curtailed, and the ratio of perfectly equipped practitioners is correspondingly diminished.


As, in human life, the new ratings depress age and maturity in relation to youth, so, in the field of history (broadly understood), the past is minimized and obscured in relation to the present. Science, with all its modernism, has sinned less in this regard than other forms of intellectual activity: its practice toward past doctrine is to reject the lie absolutely and to accept the truth finally; and its truths, being timeless, are never antiquated. But neither literature nor art nor philosophy is capable of any such decisive or definitive assay of its own past accumulations. The values in their case are provisional, varying, subjective; they depend on sympathies or affinities between a stable object and a subject which the very fact of progress assumes to be continuously variable: each man, each age, must fix its own rating, and the dawn of each new epoch, or even tendency, may be the signal for a revaluation. The result is that, speaking broadly, nothing in these fields ever becomes thoroughly obsolete in the sense in which the term applies to the cosmogony of Ptolemy, and nothing ever becomes absolute in the sense appropriate to the universal gravitation of Newton.

In science, while all the facts are not equally valued, they are nevertheless equally secure, and their values remain, in a sense, unchangeable. But in literature, art, and philosophy, no man, no age, is bound to put any fixed value on anything. The accumulation of treasure in all three fields is extensive, and the opportunity to undervalue, to neglect, to ignore — the opportunity of human nature, in other words, to wrong and impoverish itself — is unlimited.

In all ages, no doubt, the repute of the ‘latest thing’ in books, pictures, or ideas has been conspicuous; but never before has the past receded so rapidly, or has the eclipse of its works been so speedy and overwhelming. We have established a new provincialism, the provincialism which substitutes a slit of time for a nook of space, and the parish of 1914 circumscribes our ideas and interests. Let me illustrate in two ways the effect of this self-limitation.

The reading of the great past literature has become a specialty, abandoned with obvious relief by the general reader to the conduct of the selected few. Never probably in the world’s annals has nearness in time outweighed such grave defects in the contemporary output, such high superiorities in ancestral merit. The operation is as swift as it is universal. Tested by range and power alike, the spell of Dickens was perhaps the most potent, ever exercised by literature, and its appeals were to elementary and perennial instincts; but the youth of to-day are impervious to that magic which fifty years ago counted Dickens among the reasons for being glad to be alive. If the preference for current works rested on the mutual affinities of coevals, the matter would be thoroughly explained and partly justified; but, in point of fact, men throw aside congenial classics to spend their time on unsympathetic contemporaries. The cure of Dickens pays its tithes to Ibsen (I speak without disrespect to the great Norwegian), and Strindberg is read by people whose spiritual kindred and posterity will welcome the excuse the lapse of fifty years will offer for consigning his work to the dustheap.

In fact, the successes of our own day prove that nothing can be too strange for the palate or too baffling for the digestion of the nineteenth century and its successor; we shrink from no dish that issues from our own cuisine. If the old masterpieces could be republished as current literature with the very slightest modernization, or possibly with no modernization whatever, it is probable that they would reconquer the world of readers with no more difficulty than Browning, Meredith, or Whitman has found in conquering it. It is not the fact, but the presumption, of incompatibility that does the mischief. An Index Expurgatorius has been formed in which the impiety of having been born before 1850 is condignly expiated.

My second illustration shall be taken from philosophy. The tyranny of modernism in this field is so great that it has become well-nigh impossible for any mind not of the first order to form direct personal relations with any thinker older than the nineteenth century. To ask originality from average minds would be absurd; tutorship in some form is indispensable; but a practice which restricts the choice of tutors, which cuts off the access to the majority of the world’s thinkers, is a needless aggravation of servitude. The modern clergyman, for instance, of strong but not exceptional mind, can read no old thinker, unless that thinker come to him in the suite of some illustrious contemporary. He can read Plato, for Plato is a modern fashion; and, similarly, he can dally with Hume, and finger wistfully the leaves of the Critique of Pure Reason. But he cannot read Aristotle (after college) or Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius or Spinoza or Descartes or Locke or Pascal or Berkeley. He is a stranger in his own freehold. He cannot read, really read, even his Bible, except at the bidding and under the guidance of a contemporary; the words of Christ himself reach him only as a ‘repeated message.’ He is shut out even from ‘related minds,’ from his emotional kith and kin. He is in the position of a man who likes olives and caviare and could obtain them at remote shops, but who waits patiently for the chance of their being put on sale by his own grocer to whom he is indissolubly bound by the magic of proximity.

The hunger for old ideas which the impatience with old authors has left unappeased is curiously evidenced in the eager welcome accorded to contemporaries who rearrange and reword old ideas. But this revival is not universal or assured, and the withdrawal of a large part of the world’s store from the world’s use is an indisputable misfortune.

The decadence of the Biblical and classical traditions already referred to has extended and accelerated the surrender to modernism. The location of Homer and Moses, formerly vital forces in the world’s culture, on the dim verge of semi-historic record, made the whole past, as it seemed, penetrable and habitable. With these as the extreme frontier, anything on this side of the Iliad or the Pentateuch seemed neighborly, as France and England seem almost homelike to an American who has scaled the Himalayas.

Two mitigations of the malady of our time it would be uncandid not to specify. The temporal confinement is partly balanced by the enlargement, of the spatial outlook. The whole world is in view, and a full record of t he transactions of a single moment of our varied modern life would be encyclopædic. Our age suffers less than other periods from self-imprisonment, for the same reason that our count ry suffers less than other nations from a prohibitory tariff : the variety of internal resources is great. Isolation, however, in both cases, is costly even to the privileged.

A second mitigating fact is the patronage granted by influential moderns to certain older themes or writers. Science, eager for new fields at the same time that it asserts that every field is inexhaustible, intersects its former course, describes a loop as it were, and numbers antiquity among the conquests of modernism. The past as material becomes invaluable, however lightly it may be esteemed as coadjutor. The passion for novelty is as dominant here as elsewhere: what we crave is the latest upheaval of the earliest deposit, and the oldest papyrus would be inestimable as long as it was also the newest.

Something like a collation of opinions, a symposium of the centuries, is carried out here and there in philosophy and religion, but our respect for the ancients, like our deference for old men, is tinctured with a counteractive condescension. The past as a check upon the present must be valued before it can be useful. The aim, of course, is to get at. the criticism of our own points of view which is latent, in the difference between our own and past ages in those artistic, literary, and philosophical fields in which Plato, Dante, or even Jesus, might still be qualified to enlighten us. But if our own points of view dominate the investigation, the criticism is annulled, and the difference merely reinforces self-complacency.

When all concessions have been duly made, the identification by an age of its standard with its product, the assignment of values by a test so accidental and so unstable as time, the willful renunciation by mankind of a large part of its hard-won and long-saved treasures, are real misfortunes to the human species.


The influence of the sway of the expert in checking individuality is reinforced by the autocracy of the moment. Opinion in our day, even in the mouth of a Bacon or a Coleridge, must be dumb or apologetic in the absence of the latest bits of possibly immaterial and superficial knowledge. The ‘free play of mind’ on life in general is checked by the universal sense of the futility of that play on most subjects foreign to the thinker’s specialty. Whatever absurdities inhered in the old-time regimen, under which moral precepts, religious dicta, political judgments, commercial sense, and even scientific data all emanated from the same armchair, it trained and exercised the intellect to a degree unknown to our enlightened humility.

The formation of worthless opinions has probably been one of the marked utilities, as it has manifestly been one of the thriving industries, of the human race, and has kept alive that curiosity and agility which in later and happier applications has at last appropriated truth. Take the conduct of democracies, for example. Politics is one of the few pursuits still left to the amateur, and the result is, by all robust standards, a slovenly performance. Meanwhile, the state keeps afloat and the bunglers are educated, and the wise and kind rule of sagacious angels would probably be worth far less to a people than the privilege of mismanaging their own affairs. The botchwork and patchwork of the incompetent many in politics does more to train, and, in the long run, to serve mankind than the expert work of the skilled few in science.

Individuality is likewise repressed by the likeness which the common pursuit of the same ends at the same time induces in the lives and thoughts of men. In so far as people read old novels, they read different novels, and the ground of choice is internal and characteristic; in so far as they read new novels, they read the same, and the basis of choice is exterior and arbitrary. The gregariousness thus induced becomes itself an object of desire, and books sell better merely because they sell well. The gluten in human nature is amusingly brought out by our impatience to join the largest aggregations. As things now stand we see the same plays, hear the same musicians, study the same pictures and statues, digest the same literature, absorb the same ideas, read the same telegrams in the same words at practically the same moment from Cape Town to Pall Mall and from New York to San Francisco. The same effect that is visibly manifest in the audience at a play or concert, the packing of humanity in solid and uniform rows for the enjoyment of a common experience, is brought about in a less pictorial or obvious form by the simultaneous perusal of the newspaper and the magazine. We sit in a crowd by our own firesides.


The faith in the passing hour rests on hopes of amelioration that are largely baseless. Change is a quack, or half-quack; its services fall short of its advertisements. It may reconstruct the map or the frame of the world, but psychological conditions — the only conditions that count — revert stubbornly to the old ways. The automobile will not effect that dissipation of ennui for which our faith once looked to the still untested locomotive. The friction of human impatience against physical impedimenta has not been relieved by the industry of the cable or the omnipresence of the telephone. Behind the new discoveries and the new speculations, the old questions smile at us with an irony as baffling as Mona Lisa’s. Conditions approach standards only to learn that standards are themselves progressive, and the interval (on which our happiness is staked) remains unaltered by the twofold advance.

Even in the great fight for personal and social betterment, inexorable limitations must be faced. Man may grow better, yet fail to reach the point where the difference between his best and his lowest moments will cease to divide his nature and perplex his life. States may remedy injustice without reaching the hour when the difference between the lots of their happiest and least happy members will not humiliate the one and embitter the other. I urge no dastardly relinquishment or relaxation of the struggle; the battle pays, if it merely lifts the plane of the battleground; but it is well to remember that the halfness, the ambiguity, the provisionality, from which our hopes and energies now seek to be freed are handicaps whose reappearance behind each new victory of humanity and justice must be counted among the ruthless certainties of life. We shall always be living in the makeshift cabin beside the half-built house.

The external march of events will never bring us deliverance, and its duplicity lies in the fact that it diverts us always with the specious hope of an impracticable rescue. The real hope lies in inward self-adjustment. To value in to-day only its difference from yesterday is to identify the country with the frontier. The secret of life lies in the larger and fuller appropriation, by the individual spirit, of abiding and universal values; not discovery, but rediscovery, is the key. Make the comparison in what field you please: contrast the kaleidoscopic glimpses of travel with the reperusal day by day of a familiar landscape, the fluttering from one new book to another with the lifelong probing of some mighty classic, the patter of shifting acquaintance with the slow, calm pace of proved friendships, the caprices of unfixed passion with the loves that embrace a lifetime: the attestation to the worth of permanence is universal.

The only large values are those in which our ancestors participated. The oldest of wonders is the greatest — life. An ironclad, as such, is a commonplace beside a ship, and society merely as society is a more stupendous fact than Rome or England. The Iliad is less remarkable than speech, and the aeroplane is only a mote in the sky. Landscape, the family, the nation, religion — their origins are lost in the silence of a gray antiquity. The Now — the present — is indeed sacred; but its sacredness is inappreciable to those who are circumscribed by its limits; it is reserved for minds that escape its bounds.

‘Do not read the Times!' said Thoreau, in words that become the more memorable the less they are remembered, ‘read the eternities.'