WITH syntax, scholarship, and sanity one may say much in these days: one may even pretend to be a prophet.
But the complaint that genius is barred from reviews, platforms, professor’s chairs, and pulpits is supererogatory. The issue is again raised by the essay on the Professional Ministry in a recent Atlantic, the publication of which is a kind of refutation of the writer’s argument. Poets, preachers and reformers, artists — prophets all — show dissatisfaction with public vehicles of expression. They are somehow bound by convention, by regard for propriety which eager souls would disregard. Thought must be free: business and society and the ways of ordinary men are evil chains, chafing and destroying the soul. Religion, one infers, is the most conventional of all.
This attitude to the conditions of life is not convincing. When men were burned at the stake or excommunicated such a complaint was justified. It must indeed have been hard not to read the Bible if one cared to do so, or to be shriveled and charred for writing one’s ideas about it. We are five hundred years away from Huss; this is not an age of martyrs, nor yet that of the quill pen. If one is denied a hearing to-day it is either because he cannot write or speak clearly, or because his information is distorted or wrong, or because his manners are too eccentric for sane people to contemplate without distress.
If the eager soul is denied all three of these plain accomplishments, it will indeed find difficulty in getting a hearing. For those moderately endowed with the three, who have something to say, the magazines, the platform, the pulpit open wide. Salaries and one-night contracts mount in rivalry, and our prophets, major, minor, and false, are accumulating such amounts of gold as mystify unprophetic workers in the field. One of our prophets of international affairs is prepared to lecture on several subjects for a large sum of money. ‘But if,’ he is careful to explain, ‘these subjects do not interest you, I can lecture on the same terms upon any other subject you suggest.’ Here is allerlei wissenschaften, plus prophecy. His syntax and manners are approved, doubtless; but his information does not inspire confidence. Information, and much of it, is more and more essential to good prophecy. Indeed it is pitiful to prophesy without knowledge.
The eager soul, however deficient in humor, cannot escape it in others. The ways of the prophet have been especially hard since Shakespeare wrote the line about Sir Oracle. No amount of syntax, scholarship, manners, or piety may shield a man from ridicule whose mind is habitually oracular. Once a man mounts the tripod on Drink, the Drama, the Church, or Feminism, his friends begin to leave earlier than usual. The ancient human instinct to leave a prophet to his prophecy is wholesome. If his prophecy come true, well and good: that is his reward. Meanwhile, as to the subjects thought worth prophesying about, a normal man will continue to think his own runes as good as anybody else’s. Why should n’t he? He gives in to the doctor and the engineer. In religion and politics he is still his own oracle, and most prophetic when he recognizes the faculty in his next-door neighbor. The tripod may not be a rare personal possession. If I have it, I may be pretty sure that other men in the street have one very like it.
The soul eager with prophecy is devising new ways out. The new ways, upon examination, prove to be the old ways, — of Egypt, of Monte Cassino. Business and marriage, society and wealth, industrialism and pedantry are indeed burdensome to the prophet, but in them lies the rigor of life. To work hard, to hold office, maybe, and swear to support the Constitution of the United States, to marry, to learn wisdom of wife and children, to pay one’s debts — what business has any man to prophecy who withdraws himself from all this? Such a way out is the cul-desac of sentimentalism and self-deception. No strong man ever desired it; no womanly woman ever respected it. If, to know the law of God, we must have oracles of men who avoid marriage and the county treasurer, we need not be surprised if the producers of the world stay at home Sunday morning with the children, and play golf or see a baseball game in the afternoon.
There is a man up the street who works hard every day. He is habitually courteous, he is not nervous, he does not avoid people. I can tell by the way he says good-bye to his family that he is no ogre in the house, but a beloved father whose return is already anticipated. This man does not complain of his job; he is too manly to be envious, too occupied with the day’s work to be uncertain of the here and now. He represents the class that we are told is being ‘exploited.’ I have never seen the doctor’s carriage at the door. He and his family are well. They work; afterwards they enjoy themselves and sleep in a way no prophets, least of all the celibate oracle, ever slept. I was sharply conscious the other day in passing the house that this laborer was a continual source of inspiration to me. I have an affection for him. We should have little to say to each other if we met. The weather, the tax-rates, and chances of candidates at election would exhaust us. But what the prophets prophesy in anguish of soul, and elaborate ideally in apocalyptic visions, this man is.