Literature and Cosmopolitanism


READERS of literature who entertain a fond belief that literature emancipates the human spirit, especially those who read European books in the belief that they are opening their souls as well as their minds, and that by training themselves upon things cosmopolitan they are shaking off the narrow bonds of national prejudice, have suffered a cruel shock. In this bloody upheaval of Europe, where all men are in dire need of temperance, serenity, and an emancipated spirit, the leaders of European literature are swept off their feet by the flood of national passion, just as madly as statesmen, news-venders, fishmongers, merchants, and all who constitute the national mob. Is the ‘Republic of Letters’ as much the home of fanaticism, of the negation of reason, of mad self-love, as a military barrack? Is there no medicine in literature to heal the mind sick with national egotism? Or are the present chiefs of European letters — Maeterlinck, Hauptmann, Romain Rolland, and the rest — not worthy of the respect in which the world has held them ?

The ‘ Republic of Letters ’ is an idea so covered with lichens of respectability, that it has become an object of vague homage, and is commonly believed to possess wonder-working properties. To it has been assigned not merely the large and serene duty of instilling respect for letters in all those who waste their powers in getting and spending, but also that of spreading democracy, of substituting peace for war, of playing a part at least as great as that hoped for from Christianity. The ‘Republic of Letters’ is to break down the barriers between nations, pull up ancient landmarks, and establish a human patria. Several considerations have aided this notion. In the Renaissance, at which school our modern world acquired the complexion of its thought, all that was then acknowledged as literature — the classics of Greece and Rome — was termed the humanities; and Terence’s apothegm, homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto, was weighted with new solidity. In this realm of the spirit every human being could find a home. The power of the humanities seemed herculean; as soon as the things of the mind were recognized to be the real things of life, political boundaries, national jealousies, race-prejudices, would vanish of themselves, and the problem of inhumanity be solved. This idea we have inherited.

Besides this, in the ‘Republic of Letters’ a succession of men have risen to the office of supreme authority, not by right of heredity, not as representing God on earth, not at the will of a Pretorian Guard, or a military caste, but by the universal suffrage of enfranchised minds in all Europe. Plato, Cicero, Petrarch, Voltaire, Goethe, are recognized as belonging to the whole world; their great names knit up the raveled sleave of national divisions and bind all peoples into one. Their influence spreads far beyond the boundaries of their native states, and unites men from east, west, north, and south, in common discipleship.

Added to these grounds of hope that literature would arouse in men a recognition of their common brotherhood, is the part played in the creation of literature by curiosity. At bottom natural man is pure yokel, suspicious of men from another village, afraid of travelers from afar; he builds a wall to keep the alien world away. Nevertheless, curiosity, the Ariel of the intellect, peers over the wall into what tradition asserts is the Cimmerian darkness beyond, and perceives something stirring. After all, the people within the walls are not the only creatures that walk erect. Curiosity climbs over the wall and ventures to reconnoitre; it wanders on further and further, making discovery after discovery, until at last it founds all our sciences.

Literature, too, is the indirect product of our curiosity; we are curious to learn things outside ourselves. We wish to know the great deeds of our ancestors, how they fought the Trojans on the windy plains of Ilium; we wish to know about the covenant made by our fathers with their God, how they came out of the land of Egypt, and were led across the desert into the land of Canaan. We are eager to become acquainted with the ways and doings of our less immediate neighbors, — Becky Sharp, Pere Goriot, Anna Karenina, Dorothea Casaubon, Hester Prynne.

This tendency to inquire concerning things beyond our village, beyond our province, operates also concerning things beyond our national boundaries. We are as inquisitive about life in London, Paris, or Rome, as about life in Boston or New York. We wish to learn foreign manners and customs, foreign ideas concerning all the multitudinous manifestations of life. We are as eager concerning things cosmopolitan as concerning things domestic, and we demand that literature shall tell us all about them. Curiosity in literature seems to take the direct road toward an international commonwealth.

Such facts as these have encouraged pacific men to a belief that literature might establish a cosmopolitanism which should make all men brothers, and do what Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church have failed to accomplish. And here and there, in rare instances, the idea of a world so concerned with matters of the mind that national discords fall like withered husks from the ripe fruit of the spirit, rises in majesty before some high and sensitive soul.

In the year 1870, by the eighth day of December, the Prussians had long been laying siege to the city of Paris. They had advanced from victory to victory: the Emperor of the French had surrendered at Sedan, Marshal Bazaine had surrendered at Metz. On that day, in the College de France, Gaston Paris, the famous teacher of mediaeval literature, began his winter’s course with a lecture on the Chanson de Roland.

He said, ‘I did not expect that I should reopen my course in the midst of this circle of steel that the German armies make round about us. Since I bade good-bye, in the month of June, to my kind audience, what strange things have happened! Of those auditors who had already become for me almost friends, very few doubtless are here again to-day in this hall. Some are taking part in the defense of the city; others, unable to take a hand therein, have gone to seek a little peace in foreign lands; others, too, I cannot forget, are no doubt in the very camp of the invaders.’

Then he went on to say, —

‘I do not think, in general, that patriotism has anything to do with science. The chairs of higher learning are in no degree political tribunes; they are wrested from their true purpose if made to serve, whether in defense or in attack, any end whatever outside of their spiritual goal.

‘ I profess absolutely and without reserve this doctrine, that science has no other object than truth, and truth for itself, without any heed of consequences, good or bad, sorrowful or happy, that truth may cause in practice. He who from any motive, patriotic, religious, or even ethical, allows himself, in the facts which he studies or in the conclusion which he draws, the smallest dissimulation, the very slightest alteration, is not worthy to have his place in the great laboratory where probity, as a title to admission, is more indispensable than ability.

‘So understood, studies in common, pursued in the same spirit in all civilized countries, form above nationalities — which are limited, diverse, and too often enemies — a great patrie which no war soils, no conqueror menaces, and where souls find refuge and that union given them in ancient times by “The City of God.” ’

The conception of a country beyond the greeds, the vulgar ambitions, the baser passions of man, does not point to a ‘ Republic of Letters,’ but to a‘ Republic of Science.’ Science is the same for all men: the properties of numbers, the deductions of astronomers, the analyses of chemists remain the same whether the experiments are performed in Petrograd, Paris, or New York. Stars, rocks, radium, fossils, speak the same language to Swede and Spaniard, to Welshman and Serb. The sciences have one common mode of expression throughout the world; that mode is experiment. Sir Oliver Lodge, Ehrlich, Metchnikoff, Carrell, Flexner, Madame Curie, are all fellow laborers, — like so many carpenters, masons, and bricklayers, — busily at work upon the edifice of experimental truth. Their great tower ascends toward heaven; and it will mount higher and higher, for no jealous god has cast upon the workmen the confusion of tongues.

Science has but one language, whereas thought which finds expression in literature is quite another matter. If literature embodied itself in some non-national medium, as numbers or musical notes, the whole weight of its influence would be in favor of brotherhood and unity. But, since the failure of Latin to maintain itself as a living language, literature has been dependent upon a medium which is the earliest and purest product of the national spirit, — language. Language is a steadfast assertion of national characteristics, national limitations, and national boundaries.


The spirit of literature finds its home in its native place. Literature must strike its roots into its native soil, and spread its branches to its native sunshine and its native breezes, or it will die. Literature is passionately patriotic; for it lives only in its native speech. Translate literature into another language, and instead of the living tree, its head lifted toward heaven, its branches spread wide over its native soil, you have cords of wood piled up in the marketplace.

The great dictators of letters have dominated Europe through the power of national language, just as Cæsar spread his conquests by means of Roman legions. Plato is universal because in a language unrivaled in its blending of intellectual and sensuous qualities he embodied the Greek spirit; in the English of Jowett he is something quite other than himself. Cicero, by a Roman military splendor of rhetoric, by masterful control of the learned phrases of Latin, filled the world with his reputation. Petrarch, indeed, succeeded to the first place in European letters, because of his lordship in every department of Latin literature, while Latin was still the universal language; but within a hundred years, all those grounds for his fame were forgotten, and he has since remained enthroned because he is the greatest master of delicate expression in the Italian tongue.

Voltaire’s renown throughout Europe was due to his happy power of embodying the essence of the Gallic genius in French prose. Goethe, the great apostle of cosmopolitanism, whose ideal was to lift his head above the clouds and fog of national discords, will surely, in the end, depend for his glory upon his lyrical poems, for in them he made exquisite use of what is best in the German heart and the German language.

The only name which absolutely transcends national boundaries is that of Shakespeare; but who can say that even his delineation of the human soul in Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Cordelia, Imogen, Shylock, could have won such world-wide admiration, had it not been for his royal power over Elizabethan English?

Read him at random: —

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.

Is it not this Shakespearean English that constitutes the wings of Shakespeare’s genius?

As all lovers of beauty were wont to make a pilgrimage to Rheims because the cathedral there was saturated with French genius; as we go to Florence because the Palazzo Vecchio, Giotto’s campanile, and the pictured riches of the Uffizi, are profoundly Italian; as we visit the yew-shaded, tender-turfed, mellowed and memorial-laden village churches of England, because they breathe forth the very breath of England; so do we betake ourselves to the great national classics of literature.

The genius of a nation is the source of untold riches; it has been bred by centuries, dandled by favoring circumstances, nurtured and tutored by a thousand random influences; it has taken to itself a multitude of discordant elements, transformed them into a homogeneous whole, and stamped that whole with the national effigy and superscription.

Language is the most perfect expression of a nation’s genius; it serves the nation’s greatest needs; it has had the greatest labor bestowed upon it. Generation after generation has struggled to express in language its tenderest love, its profoundest passion, its bitterest grief, its subtlest thought. One man added a word here, another a phrase there; this man, as with a hammer, beat rough speech into smoothness and delicacy, a second rendered it pliable, a third fitted it for speculation. Mothers wrought it into a means of comforting their babies; lovers fashioned it into fantastic rhetoric of compliment; thinkers moulded it into a substance so light that it is hardly heavier than thought.

Finally, after a people has labored for centuries to create a national instrument, literature picks up that instrument and puts it to her uses. What literature shall do is determined by that instrument; she has no choice, she is the creature of her tool, she is the handiwork of language.

There was a time, hundreds of years ago, when cosmopolitanism dominated literature. The Latin language was but the spirit of the Roman Empire reincarnate in literature; the universal domination of one great people lived on in ghostly fashion. Even after national languages had long proved themselves amply sufficient for all the purposes of literature, brilliant spirits of the Renaissance — Ficino, Poliziano, Erasmus, Spinoza, even Leibnitz — wrote in Latin; they wished to overstep national boundaries and write to all the world as fellow cosmopolites. And because they wrote in Latin, and not in their native languages, what they wrote belongs to the domain of thought, not to the domain of literature. Learning and the Church strove in vain to maintain Latin as a living language; it died just because it was cosmopolitan and in no wise national. Everywhere the power that carries literary fame throughout the world must be sought in some national trait.

We must not be disappointed to find that in this tumult of national passion these European men of letters became primitive, elemental, blinded by national egotism. Men of science, whose home is the laboratory, who talk in electrons and terms of energy; philosophers, who spend their time in speculation concerning truth; statesmen, who know that under the promptings of greed all nations behave like savages, — these have no excuse for losing their moral equilibrium: physical truth, philosophical truth, human nature, will not be changed by the outcome of this war. But it may not be so with literature. These men of letters are instinctively right: literature, the food of their souls, depends upon national spirit. Literature would droop, decay, and become of no more moral comfort to men than mathematics, if it were to become cosmopolitan, or indifferent to national existence.


Does literature then do nothing to soften men’s manners, to lift them to a large view of things, to enable them to surmount the Chinese wall of ignorance and prejudice which encircles every nation, to crush in their hearts the brutal and irrational war-spirit, to help bring about the long-dreamed-of golden age of peace and good-will among men? The answer is that, of course, literature helps men in all these ways; but not by uprooting the instincts of patriotism.

Cicero’s eulogy of the benefits conferred by literature is as true to-day as on the day when he defended Aulus Licinius Archias in the Roman forum. ‘Haec studia adulescentiam alunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur.’ (These studies nourish youth, they delight old age, they add a grace to prosperity, they offer refuge and comfort in adversity, they are a pleasure at home, they are no trouble abroad, they will pass the night with us, accompany us on our travels, and stay with us in the country.)

All this is true. The benefits of literature can hardly be overestimated. Books enlarge a man’s horizon. They raise a mirage of water-brooks and date-palms to travelers in a desert. They are ‘the sick man’s health, the prisoner’s release.’ Shut within a narrow routine of dull necessity, sad at heart in a world where wrong triumphs, where beauty has no assurance of respect, where humanity toils terribly merely for its daily bread or the satisfaction of trivial appetites, the earthly pilgrim need do no more than pick up a book, and lo! he steps forth into another world. Here he is free from sorrow and care, free from the burden of his body, from envy, jealousy, contempt, self-satisfaction, from vain regrets, from wishes that can never wear the livery of hope, from narrowness of soul and hardness of heart. He may mingle in the society of the good and great; he may listen to the wise man, and the prophet; he may see all the conditions of human happiness and misery; he may watch the human spirit, in its strife with circumstance, nobly conquer or basely succumb; he may go down through the ‘gate of a hundred sorrows,’ or accompany Dante and Beatrice through the spheres of Paradise.

By means of literature we step from our narrow chamber into a brave world of unnumbered interests. After such experiences the reader acquires a larger view of life; in his heart he crushes the irrational and brutal war-spirit; he imagines for a season that men are brothers. And if this is true of readers who can leave their daily routine for the palace of literature but now and then, for an hour or two of an evening or on Sunday, it is far more true of the men who pass their lives in the palace and have contributed to its wonderful appurtenances.

The humanities do render men more humane; literature does fit them to be citizens of the world, without depriving them of their own homes. Die versunkene Glocke, L’Oiseau bleu, Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, Peter Pan, Jean Christophe, are all proofs of a broad and sensitive humanity.

But certainly Hauptmann, Maeterlinck, and their companions, all swept away by national feeling, have given our world a shock. It is a natural disappointment; we had hoped that literature was an effective instrument of peace, and it comes with a sword. We are disappointed, not by what they have done, but by what they, or some among them, have left undone. Men whose country is threatened with destruction are right to cry out and fight for the preservation of their country, and men of letters more than others, for literature has rendered their own country still dearer to them than it is to other men. So far as their passion limits itself to the preservation of their own country, all the world will applaud them; if they overstep that limit and support, or justify, any attempt to destroy another nation, or if they remain silent during any such attempt, no matter who makes it, they are false to literature, as well as to civilization and to the nobler spirit of man. All these distinguished European men of letters proclaim the sacred rights of their own nationality: but if one nation has a sacred right to exist, all nations have; and the infringement of a sacred right is a sacrilegious wrong. That wrong is committed by any man of letters who does not raise his voice and hand to prevent one nation from crushing another. There is an allegiance owed to literature.

The world’s literature depends for its richness upon diversity; and difference of nationality creates the most interesting diversity. Life and its phenomena do not appear the same to a Russian and a Belgian. Crush Russia, and you maim or bruise her national life, and with her national life her power of utterance, — you crush in the egg Tolstois and Dostoievskis still unborn. Destroy Belgium, and you deprive the world’s literature of all that which new Maeterlincks would create. No nation can be severely injured, without suffering in soul as well as in body. The full functioning of national life is necessary to a fine flowering of literature. Athens produced iEschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, in the time of her glory; England bred Shakespeare, Spenser, Hooker, Bacon, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth; Corneille, Racine, Moliere, La Fontaine, flourished in the golden days of Louis XIV. Lower a nation’s vitality, and her spirit becomes languid; she no longer possesses the living energy to produce what she might otherwise have done. When a nation is sick, the noblest parts of her suffer first.

A cowed nation cannot bring forth a noble literature. But a little state may have as great a soul as a mighty state; witness the Athens of Pericles, the Florence of Lorenzo de’ Medici, or Holland in its great days. No man of letters, unless blinded by ignoble passion, would consent to the national destruction of any state. The rule laid down by Immanuel Kant for the foundation of perpetual peace applies with double force to the lasting prosperity of literature: ‘No independent State (little or great is in this case all one) shall be capable of becoming the property of another State by inheritance, exchange, purchase, or gift’; and if not by peaceful means, still less by violent means. The Commonwealth of Literature demands that all her constituent parts be respected.

Literatures can help one another; indeed no literature, unaided by another, can attain its fullest development. As each nation prospers best in material things by exchanging commodities with other nations, so each literature prospers best by exchanging commodities of the intellect. The crossbreeding of minds is necessary for new intellectual products. The history of all literatures is full of the benefits derived from one another. Italy, Spain, England, France, Germany, in their respective flowering seasons, owe much to the achievements of the others. Literatures are like plants that need pollen wafted from afar in order to bear their brightest blossoms. The influence of Shakespeare, Scott, and Byron, of Montaigne and Rousseau, of Petrarch and Tasso, of Goethe, of Ibsen, of all fertile genius, has been nearly as great in foreign literatures as in their own. Destroy one nation and you deprive the literatures of all other nations of untold seeds of increase.

The unworthy predicament in which some notable European men of letters stand, is that they have let themselves become so drunk with national egotism that they do not perceive the permanent need which the literature of each nation has of the literature of all other nations, and therefore they have committed high treason against the ‘Republic of Letters.’