Ignorant, as I inevitably am, dear
reader, of your intellectual and spiritual upbringing,
I can hardly guess whether the title of my article
will impress you as a platitude or as a paradox.
Goodness knows, some men and women think quite enough
of themselves as it is, and, from a certain momentary
point of view, there may seem little occasion indeed
to remind man of his importance.
I refer to your intellectual and spiritual
upbringing, because I venture to wonder if it was
in the least like my own. I was brought up, I
rejoice to say, in the bosom of an orthodox Puritan
family. I was led and driven to believe that
man was everybody, and that God was somebody and
that not merely the Sabbath, but the whole universe,
was made for man: that the stars were his bedtime
candles, and that the sun arose to ensure his catching
the 8.37 of a morning.
On this belief I acted for many years.
Every young man believes that there is no god but
God, and that he is born to be His prophet though
perhaps that belief is not so common nowadays.
I am speaking of many years ago.
Science, however, has long since changed
all that. Those terrible Muses, geology, astronomy,
and particularly biology, have reduced man to a humility
which, if in some degree salutary, becomes in its excess
highly dangerous. Why should one maggot in this
great cheese of the world take itself more seriously
than others? Why dream mightily and do bravely
if we are but a little higher than the beasts that
perish? Nature cares nothing about us, and her
giant forces laugh at our fancies. The world
has no such meaning as we thought. Poets and saints,
deluded by unhealthy imaginations, have misled us,
and it is quite likely that the wild waves are really
saying nothing more important than ’Beecham’s
‘Give us a definition of life,’
I asked a certain famous scientist and philosopher
whom I am privileged to call my friend.
‘Nothing easier!’ he gaily
replied. ’Life is a product of solar energy,
falling upon the carbon compounds, on the outer crust
of a particular planet, in a particular corner of
the solar system.’
‘And that,’ I said, ’really
satisfies you as a definition of life of
all the wistful wonder of the world!’ And as
I spoke I thought of Moses with mystically shining
face upon the Mount of the Law, of Ezekiel rapt in
his divine fancies, of Socrates drinking his cup of
hemlock, of Christ’s agony in the garden; the
golden faces of the great of the world passed as in
a dream before me, soldiers, saints, poets,
and lovers. I thought of Horatius on the bridge,
of the holy and gentle soul of St. Francis, of Chatterton
in his splendid despair, and in fancy I went with
the awestruck citizens of Verona to reverently gaze
at the bodies of two young lovers who had counted
the world well lost if they might only leave it together.
The carbon compounds!
I took down Romeo and Juliet,
listened to its passionate spheral music, and the
carbon compounds have never troubled me again.
Love laughs at the carbon compounds,
and a great book, a noble act, a beautiful face, make
nonsense of such cheap formula for the mystery of
Yet this parable of the carbon compounds
is a fair sample of all that science can tell us when
we come to ultimates. We go away from its oracles
with a mouthful of sounding words, which may seem very
impressive till we examine their emptiness. What,
for example, is all this rigmarole about solar energy
and the carbon compounds but a more pompous way of
putting the old scriptural statement that man was made
of the dust of the ground? To say that God took
a handful of dust and breathed upon it and it became
man, is no harder to realise than that solar rays
falling upon that dust should produce humanity and
all the various phantasmagoria of life. If anything,
it is more explanatory. It leaves us with an
inspiring mystery for explanation.
In saying this, I do not forget our
debt to science. It has done much in clearing
our minds of cant, in popularising more systematic
thinking, and in instituting sounder methods of observation.
In some directions it has deepened our sense of wonder.
It has broadened our conception of the universe, though
I fear it has been at the expense of narrowing our
conception of man. With Hamlet it contemptuously
says, ’What is this quintessence of dust!’
It is so impressed by the mileage and tonnage of the
universe, so abased before the stupendous measurements
of the cosmos, the appalling infinity and eternity
of its space and time, that it forgets the marvel
of the mind that can grasp all these conceptions,
forgets, too, that, big and bullying as the forces
of nature may be, man has been able in a large measure
to control, indeed to domesticate, them. Surely
the original fact of lightning is little more marvellous
than the power of man to turn it into his errand-boy
or his horse, to light his rooms with it, and imprison
it in pennyworths, like the genius in the bottle,
in the underground railway. Mere size seems unimpressive
when we contemplate such an extreme of littleness as
say the ant, that pin-point of a personality, that
mere speck of being, yet including within its infinitesimal
proportions a clever, busy brain, a soldier, a politician,
and a merchant. That such and so many faculties
should have room to operate within that tiny body there
is a marvel before which, it seems to me, the billions
of miles that keep us from falling into the jaws of
the sun, and the tonnage of Jupiter, are comparatively
insignificant and conceivable.
No, we must not allow ourselves to
be frightened by the mere size and weight of the universe,
or be depressed because our immediate genealogy is
not considered aristocratic. Perhaps, after all,
we are sons of God, and as Mr. Meredith finely puts
it, our life here may still be
’... a little holding
To do a mighty service.’
‘Things of a day!’ exclaims
Pindar. ‘What is a man? What is a man
It is good for our Nebuchadnezzars,
the kings of the world, and conceited, successful
people generally, to measure themselves against the
great powers of the universe, to humble their pride
by contemplation of the fixed stars; but a too humble
attitude toward the Infinite, a too constant pondering
upon eternity, is not good for us, unless, so to say,
we can live with them as friends, with the inspiring
feeling that, little as we may seem, there is that
in us which is no less infinite, no less cosmic, and
that our passions and dreams have, as Mr. William
Watson puts it, ‘a relish of eternity.’
Readers of Amiel’s ‘Journal’
will know what a sterilising, petrifying influence
his trance-like contemplation of the Infinite had upon
his life. Amiel was simply hypnotised by the
universe, as a man may hypnotise himself by gazing
fixedly at a star.
Mr. Pater, you will remember, has
a remarkable study of a similar temperament in his
Imaginary Portraits. Sebastian van Storck,
like Amiel, had become hypnotised by the Infinite.
It paralysed in him all impulse or power ‘to
be or do any limited thing.’
‘For Sebastian, at least,’
we read, ’the world and the individual alike
had been divested of all effective purpose. The
most vivid of finite objects, the dramatic episodes
of Dutch history, the brilliant personalities which
had found their parts to play in them, that golden
art, surrounding one with an ideal world, beyond which
the real world was discernible indeed, but etherealised
by the medium through which it came to one; all this,
for most men so powerful a link to existence, only
set him on the thought of escape into a
formless and nameless infinite world, evenly grey....
Actually proud, at times, of his curious, well-reasoned
nihilism, he could but regard what is called the business
of life as no better than a trifling and wearisome
This mood, once confined to a few
mystics is likely to become a common one, is already,
one imagines, far from infrequent so the
increase of suicide would lead us to suppose.
Robbed of his hope of a glorious immortality, stripped
of his spiritual significance, bullied and belittled
by science on every hand, man not unnaturally begins
to feel that it is no use taking his life seriously,
that, in fact, it betrays a lack of humour to do so.
While he was a supernatural being, a son of God, it
was with him a case of noblesse oblige; and
while he is happy and comfortable he doesn’t
mind giving up the riddle of the world. It is
only the unhappy that ever really think. But what
is he to do when agony and despair come upon him,
when all that made his life worth living is taken
from him? How is he to sustain himself? where
shall he look for his strength or his hope? He
looks up at the sky full of stars, but he is told
that God is not there, that the city of God is long
since a ruin, and that owls hoot to each other across
its moss-grown fanes and battlements; he looks down
on the earth, full of graves, a vast necropolis of
once radiant dreams, with the living for its phantoms, and
there is no comfort anywhere. Happy is he if some
simple human duty be at hand, which he may go on doing
blindly and dumbly till, perhaps, the light
come again. It is difficult to offer comfort
to such a one. Comfort is cheap, and we know nothing.
When life holds nothing for our love and delight,
it is difficult to explain why we should go on living
it except on the assumption that it matters,
that it is, in some mystical way, supremely important,
how we live it, and what we make of those joys and
sorrows which, say some, are but meant as mystical
trials and tests.
Sebastian van Storck refused ‘to
be or do any limited thing,’ but the answer
to his mysticism is to be found in a finer mysticism,
that which says that there is no limited act or thing,
but that the significance, as well as the pathos,
of eternity is in our smallest joys and sorrows, as
in our most everyday transactions, and the greatness
of God incarnate in His humblest child.
This, the old doctrine of the microcosm,
seems in certain moments, moments one would wish to
say, of divination, strangely plain and clear when,
in Blake’s words, it seems so easy to
’... see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.’
Perhaps in the street, an effect of
light, a passing face, yes, even the plaintive grind
of a street organ, some such everyday circumstance,
affects you suddenly in quite a strange way. It
has become universalised. It is no longer a detail
of the Strand, but a cryptic symbol of human life.
It has been transfigured into a thing of infinite
pathos and infinite beauty, and, sad or glad, brings
to you an inexplicable sense of peace, an unshakable
conviction that man is a spirit, that his life is
indeed of supreme and lovely significance, and that
his destiny is secure and blessed.
Matthew Arnold, ever sensitive to
such spiritual states, has described these trance-like
visitations in ’The Buried Life’
’Only, but this is rare
When a beloved hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again:
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies
And what we mean, we say, and what we
would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun,
’And there arrives a lull in the
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.’
‘To be or do any limited thing’!
What indeed, we ask in such hours, is a limited thing,
when all the humble interests of our daily life are
palpably big with eternity? Is the first kiss
of a great love a limited thing? though there is,
unhappily, no denying that it comes to an end!
When a young husband and wife smile across to each
other above the sleep of their little child is
that a limited thing? When the siren voices of
the world blend together on the lips of a young poet,
and with rapt eyes and hot heart he makes a song as
of the morning stars is that a limited
thing? Are love, and genius, and duty done in
the face of death are these limited things?
I think not and man, indeed, knows better.
Greatness is not relative. It
is absolute. It is not for man to depress himself
by measuring himself against the eternities and the
immensities external to him. What he has to do
is to look inward upon himself, to fathom the eternities
and the immensities in his own heart and brain.
And the more man sees himself forsaken
by the universe, the more opportunity to vindicate
his own greatness. Is there no kind heart beating
through the scheme of things? man’s
heart shall still be kind. Will the eternal silence
make mock of his dreams and his idealisms, laugh coldly
at ‘the splendid purpose in his eyes’?
Well, so be it. His dreams and idealisms are
none the less noble things, and if the gods do thus
make mock of mortal joy and pain let us
be grateful that we were born mere men.
Moreover, he has one great answer
to the universe the answer of courage.
He is still Prometheus, and there is no limit to what
he can bear. Let the vultures of pain rend his
heart as they will, he can still hiss ‘coward’
in the face of the Eternal. Nay, he can even laugh
at his sufferings thanks to the spirit
of humour, that most blessed of ministering angels,
without which surely the heart of humanity had long
since broken, by which man is able to look with a comical
eye upon terrors, as it were taking themselves so
seriously, coming with such Olympian thunders and
lightnings to break the spirit of a mere six foot
But while his courage and his humour
are defences of which he cannot be disarmed, whatever
be the intention of the Eternal, it is by no means
certain that nature does not mean kindly by man.
Perhaps the pain of the world is but the rough horseplay
of great powers that mean but jest and
kill us in it: as though one played at ‘tick’
with an elephant!
Perhaps, after all, who
knows? God is love, and His great purpose
Surely, when you think of it, the
existence in man of the senses of love and pity implies
the probability of their existence elsewhere in the
’Into that breast which brings the
Shall I with shuddering fall.’
So runs the profoundest thought in
modern poetry and need I say it is Mr.
As the fragrance and colour of the
rose must in some occult way be properties of the
rude earth from which they are drawn by the sun, may
not human love also be a kindly property of matter that
mysterious life-stuff in which is packed such marvellous
potentialities? Evidently love must be somewhere
in the universe else it had not got into
the heart of man; and perhaps pity slides down like
an angel in the rays of the solar energy, while there
is the potential beating of a human heart even in
the hard crust of the carbon compounds.
I confess that this seems to me no
mere fancy, but a really comforting speculation.
Pain, we say, is inherent in the scheme of the universe;
but is not love seen to be no less inherent, too?
There must be some soul of beauty
to animate the lovely face of the world, some soul
of goodness to account for its saints. If the
gods are cruel, it is strange that man should be so
kind, and that some pathetic spirit of tenderness
should seem to stir even in the bosoms of beasts and
Meanwhile, we cannot too often insist
that, whatever uncertainties there be, man has one
certainty himself. Science has really
adduced nothing essential against his significance.
That he is not as big as an Alp, as heavy as a star,
or as long-lived as an eagle, is nothing against his
proper importance. Even a nobleman is of more
significance in the world than his acres, and giants
are not proverbial for their intellectual or spiritual
qualities. The ant is of more importance than
the ass, and the great eye of a beautiful woman is
more significant than the whole clayey bulk of Mars.
After all the scientific mockery of
the old religious ideal of the importance of man,
one begins to wonder if his Ptolemaic fancy that he
was the centre of the universe, and that it was all
made for him, is not nearer the If truth than the
pitiless theories which hardly allow him equality
with the flea that perishes.
Suppose if, after all, the stars were
really meant as his bedtime candles, and the sun’s
purpose in rising is really that he may catch the
For, as Sir Thomas Browne says in
his solemn English, ’there is surely a piece
of Divinity in us, something that was before the elements,
and owes no homage unto the sun.’
The long winter of materialistic science
seems to be breaking up, and the old ideals are seen
trooping back with something more than their old beauty,
in the new spiritual spring that seems to be moving
in the hearts of men.
After all its talk, science has done
little more than correct the misprints of religion.
Essentially, the old spiritualistic and poetic theories
of life are seen, not merely weakly to satisfy the
cravings of man’s nature, but to be mostly in
harmony with certain strange and moving facts in his
constitution, which the materialists unscientifically
It was important, and has been helpful,
to insist that man is an animal, but it is still more
important to insist that he is a spirit as well.
He is, so to say, an animal by accident, a spirit
by birthright: and, however homely his duties
may occasionally seem, his life is bathed in the light
of a sacred transfiguring significance, its smallest
acts flash with divine meanings, its highest moments
are rich with ’the pathos of eternity,’
and its humblest duties mighty with the responsibilities
of a god.