There is etymological uncertainty
about the phrase. But there is no doubt about
its meaning; no doubt that it represents a good, comfortable
gait, at which nobody goes nowadays.
A hundred years ago it was the fashion:
in the days when railroads were not, nor telegraphs;
when citizens journeyed in stages, putting up prayers
in church if their journey were to be so long as from
Massachusetts into Connecticut; when evil news travelled
slowly by letter, and good news was carried about
by men on horses; when maidens spun and wove for long,
quiet, silent years at their wedding trousseaux,
and mothers spun and wove all which sons and husbands
wore; when newspapers were small and infrequent, dingy-typed
and wholesomely stupid, so that no man could or would
learn from them more about other men’s opinions,
affairs, or occupations than it concerned his practical
convenience to know; when even wars were waged at
slow pace,-armies sailing great distances
by chance winds, or plodding on foot for thousands
of miles, and fighting doggedly hand to hand at sight;
when fortunes also were slowly made by simple, honest
growths,-no men excepting freebooters and
pirates becoming rich in a day.
It would seem treason or idiocy to
sigh for these old days,-treason to ideas
of progress, stupid idiocy unaware that it is well
off. Is not to-day brilliant, marvellous, beautiful?
Has not living become subject to a magician’s
“presto”? Are we not decked in the
whole of color, feasted on all that shape and sound
and flavor can give? Are we not wiser each moment
than we were the moment before? Do not the blind
see, the deaf hear, and the crippled dance? Has
not Nature surrendered to us? Art and science,
are they not our slaves,-coining money
and running mills? Have we not built and multiplied
religions, till each man, even the most irreligious,
can have his own? Is not what is called the “movement
of the age” going on at the highest rate of
speed and of sound? Shall we complain that we
are maddened by the racket, out of breath with the
spinning and whirling, and dying of the strain of
it all? What is a man, more or less? What
are one hundred and twenty millions of men, more or
less? What is quiet in comparison with riches?
or digestion and long life in comparison with knowledge?
When we are added up in the universal reckoning of
races, there will be small mention of individuals.
Let us be disinterested. Let us sacrifice ourselves,
and, above all, our children, to raise the general
average of human invention and attainment to the highest
possible mark. To be sure, we are working in
the dark. We do not know, not even if we are
Huxley do we know, at what point in the grand, universal
scale we shall ultimately come in. We know, or
think we know, about how far below us stand the gorilla
and the seal. We patronize them kindly for learning
to turn hand-organs or eat from porringers. Let
us hope that, if we have brethren of higher races
on other planets, they will be as generously appreciative
of our little all when we have done it; but, meanwhile,
let us never be deterred from our utmost endeavor
by any base and envious misgivings that possibly we
may not be the last and highest work of the Creator,
and in a fair way to reach very soon the final climax
of all which created intelligences can be or become.
Let us make the best of dyspepsia, paralysis, insanity,
and the death of our children. Perhaps we can
do as much in forty years, working night and day, as
we could in seventy, working only by day; and the
five out of twelve children that live to grow up can
perpetuate the names and the methods of their fathers.
It is a comfort to believe, as we are told, that the
world can never lose an iota that it has gained; that
progress is the great law of the universe. It
is consoling to verify this truth by looking backward,
and seeing how each age has made use of the wrecks
of the preceding one as material for new structures
on different plans. What are we that we should
mention our preference for being put to some other
use, more immediately remunerative to ourselves!
We must be all wrong if we are not
in sympathy with the age in which we live. We
might as well be dead as not keep up with it.
But which of us does not sometimes wish in his heart
of hearts, that he had been born long enough ago to
have been boon companion of his great-grandfather,
and have gone respectably and in due season to his
grave at a good jog trot?