The present war has revealed the flimsiness of the world’s superficial learning. It has also laid bare the working of those deep forces that hold men together. At first we felt a shock, for we saw that a volcanic attack was being made upon modern society. But we were visited almost at the same time by a new sense of the solidarity of mankind. Two thirds of Europe were welded into a single country in a night, while America’s mission as an unselfish and just nation was clearly seen by all men. The state papers of our country have been filled, from Revolutionary times downward, with thoughts which find an application now. Our popular education, our practical training, have fitted us for this crisis.
Mankind is witnessing a great burlesque of patriotism, — a reduction ad absurdum of national feeling, — which has been maturing during forty years in the bosom of Europe, and now appears in the form of a national madness. Its utterances make small appeal to those untouched by the craze, yet appear like divinity to the initiated. Even some of our own American professors and literary men, who have been living in contact with the German mind, betray signs of a sympathetic madness, which may be studied as a part of the great phenomenon now in progress. On the other hand it is perfectly certain that there exist in Germany numbers of persons whose intellects are untouched by the passions of the day, and whose voices will be heard as those passions begin to subside.
A vision of the destiny of man has to-day flashed over the world. It recalls the religious awakening in Northern Europe that followed in the footsteps of the first Christian missionaries. All smaller animosities are cast aside in the endeavor to save the essentials of a common life. The cataclysm has passed through each private consciousness like the stroke of an invisible wand, and the western world has throbbed, and still throbs, like one man. For a period which must last for several years, the greater part of Europe and all of America will agonize daily over the same thought. Non-Teutonic Europe and both Americas have become a vast, unitary thinking-machine, which grinds honestly, remorselessly, painfully, and with a passionate desire to find the truth. The progress of its thought is seen to be determinate, inscrutable, mechanical. So many sides has the problem that all men are, as it were, equalized by the act of grappling with it. Learned and unlearned are equally at a loss, equally competent. The philosopher can hardly suggest any idea on the matter which his coachman does not anticipate or his gardener express in an epigram. Compelling force invades the sanctuaries of men’s minds and no private breast is immune. We see as possibilities the respect of nations for one another, the subsidence of hatreds, the lessening of armaments. Beyond these vistas of political change the convulsion now in progress seems to portend unfathomable changes in men’s tones of mind and in their outlook upon life. An era has closed. A page in the history of man has been turned. Every individual must stand still and discover by the outcome what relation he will bear to the new dispensation.
One thing has been made apparent, namely, that the relations between good and evil are inscrutable. All of this new life seems to have leaped into being in response to an attack upon life; all of this reason, in response to unreason; all of the new order, in response to chaos.
The inhabitants of Europe are near the conflagration, which they watch while their treasure and their children are being consumed by it. They have less leisure for thought than we. And thus for the moment America has become the focus of such reflection as humanity can afford time for. Moral influence is indeed all that America can contribute to the situation. To see clearly is our province. We must strive only for vision, feeling sure that this will somehow qualify the vision of the world.