Read HUMANLY SPEAKING of Humanly Speaking, free online book, by Samuel McChord Crothers, on

“Humanly speaking, it is impossible.” So the old theologian would say when denying any escape from his own argument. His logical machine was going at full speed, and the grim engineer had no notion of putting on the brakes. His was a non-stop train and there was to be no slowing-down till he reached the terminus.

But in the middle of the track was an indubitable fact. By all the rules of argumentation it had no business to be there, trespassing on the right of way. But there it was! We trembled to think of the impending collision.

But the collision between the argument and the fact never happened. The “humanly speaking” was the switch that turned the argument safely on a parallel track, where it went whizzing by the fact without the least injury to either. Many things which are humanly speaking impossible are of the most common occurrence and the theologian knew it.

It is only by the use of this saving clause that one may safely moralize or generalize or indulge in the mildest form of prediction. Strictly speaking, no one has a right to express any opinion about such complex and incomprehensible aggregations of humanity as the United States of America or the British Empire. Humanly speaking, they both are impossible. Antecedently to experience the Constitution of Utopia as expounded by Sir Thomas More would be much more probable. It has a certain rational coherence. If it existed at all it would hang together, being made out of whole cloth. But how does the British Empire hold together? It seems to be made of shreds and patches. It is full of anomalies and temporary makeshifts. Why millions of people, who do not know each other, should be willing to die rather than to be separated from each other, is something not easily explained. Nevertheless the British Empire exists, and, through all the changes which threaten it, grows in strength.

The perils that threaten the United States of America are so obvious that anybody can see them. So far as one can see, the Republic ought to have been destroyed long ago by political corruption, race prejudice, unrestricted immigration and the growth of monopolies. The only way to account for its present existence is that there is something about it that is not so easily seen. Disease is often more easily diagnosed than health. But we should remember that the Republic is not out of danger. It is a very salutary thing to bring its perils to the attention of the too easy-going citizens. It is well to have a Jeremiah, now and then, to speak unwelcome truths.

But even Jeremiah, when he was denouncing the evils that would befall his country, had a saving clause in his gloomy predictions. All manner of evils would befall them unless they repented, and humanly speaking he was of the opinion that they couldn’t repent. Said he: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good that are accustomed to do evil.” Nevertheless this did not prevent him from continually exhorting them to do good, and blaming them when they didn’t do it. Like all great moral teachers he acted on the assumption that there is more freedom of will than seemed theoretically possible. It was the same way with his views of national affairs. Jeremiah’s reputation is that of a pessimist. Still, when the country was in the hands of Nebuchadnezzar and he was in prison for predicting it, he bought a piece of real estate which was in the hands of the enemy. He considered it a good investment. “I subscribed the deed and sealed it, and called witnesses and weighed him the money in the balances.” Then he put the deeds in an earthen vessel, “that they may continue many days.” For in spite of the panic that his own words had caused, he believed that the market would come up again. “Houses and vineyards shall yet be bought in this land.” If I were an archaeologist with a free hand, I should like to dig in that field in Anathoth in the hope of finding the earthen jar with the deed which Hanameel gave to his cousin Jeremiah, for a plot of ground that nobody else would buy.

It is the moralists and the reformers who have after all the most cheerful message for us. They are all the time threatening us, yet for our own good. They see us plunging heedlessly to destruction. They cry, “Look out!” They often do not themselves see the way out, but they have a well-founded hope that we will discover a way when our attention is called to an imminent danger. The fact that the race has survived thus far is an evidence that its instinct for self-preservation is a strong one. It has a wonderful gift for recovering after the doctors have given it up.

The saving clause is a great help to those idealists who are inclined to look unwelcome facts in the face. It enables them to retain faith in their ideals, and at the same time to hold on to their intellectual self-respect.

There are idealists of another sort who know nothing of their struggles and self-contradictions. Having formed their ideal of what ought to be, they identify it with what is. For them belief in the existence of good is equivalent to the obliteration of evil. Their world is equally good in all its parts, and is to be viewed in all its aspects with serene complacency.

Now this is very pleasant for a time, especially if one is tired and needs a complete rest. But after a while it becomes irksome, and one longs for a change, even if it should be for the worse. We are floating on a sea of beneficence, in which it is impossible for us to sink. But though one could not easily drown in the Dead Sea, one might starve. And when goodness is of too great specific gravity it is impossible to get on in it or out of it. This is disconcerting to one of an active disposition. It is comforting to be told that everything is completely good, till you reflect that that is only another way of saying that nothing can be made any better, and that there is no use for you to try.

Now the idealist of the sterner sort insists on criticizing the existing world. He refuses to call good evil or evil good. The two things are, in his judgment, quite different. He recognizes the existence of good, but he also recognizes the fact that there is not enough of it. This he looks upon as a great evil which ought to be remedied. And he is glad that he is alive at this particular juncture, in a world in which there is yet room for improvement.

Besides the ordinary Christian virtues I would recommend to any one, who would fit himself to live happily as well as efficiently, the cultivation of that auxiliary virtue or grace which Horace Walpole called “Serendipity.” Walpole defined it in a letter to Sir Horace Mann: “It is a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavor to explain to you; you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip.’ As their Highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.... Now do you understand Serendipity?” In case the reader does not understand, Walpole goes on to define “Serendipity” as “accidental sagacity (for you must know that no discovery you are looking for comes under this description).”

I am inclined to think that in such a world as this, where our hold on all good is precarious, a man should be on the lookout for dangers. Eternal vigilance is the price we pay for all that is worth having. But when, prepared for the worst, he goes forward, his journey will be more pleasant if he has also a “serendipitaceous” mind. He will then, by a sort of accidental sagacity, discover that what he encounters is much less formidable than what he feared. Half of his enemies turn out to be friends in disguise, and half of the other half retire at his approach. After a while such words as “impracticable” and “impossible” lose their absoluteness and become only synonyms for the relatively difficult. He has so often found a way out, where humanly speaking there was none, that he no longer looks upon a logical dilemma as a final negation of effort.

The following essays were written partly at home and partly abroad. They therefore betray the influence of some of the mass movements of the day. Anyone with even a little leisure from his own personal affairs must realize that we are living in one of the most stirring times in human history. Everywhere the old order is changing. Everywhere there are confused currents both of thought and feeling.

That the old order is passing is obvious enough. That a new order is arising, and that it is on the whole beneficent, is not merely a pious hope. It is more than this: it is a matter of observation to any one with a moderate degree of “Serendipity.”