Mene, Tekel, Upharsin
Conventional Lies of our Civilization-Max Simon Nordau-1883
Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.
“Man never is, but always to be blest,” and perhaps at no time was he so far removed from the actual attainment of happiness as at present. Culture and civilization are spreading and conquering even the most benighted regions of the globe. Those countries where darkness reigned but yesterday, are to-day basking in a glorious sunshine. Each day witnesses the birth of some new, wonderful invention, destined to make the world pleasanter to live in, the adversities of life more endurable, and to increase the variety and intensity of the enjoyments possible to humanity. But yet, notwithstanding the growth and increase of all conditions to promote comfort, the human race is to-day more discontented, more irritated and more restless than ever before. The world of civilization is an immense hospital-ward, the air is filled with groans and lamentations, and every form of suffering is to be seen twisting and turning on the beds. Go through the world, and ask each country you come to: “Does contentment dwell here? Have you peace and happiness?” From each you will hear the same reply: “Pass on, we have not that which you are seeking.” Pause and listen at the borders, and the breeze will bring to your ears from each one, the same confused echoes of contention and tumult, of revolt and of oppression.
In Germany Socialism with myriads of tiny teeth, is stealthily gnawing at the columns that uphold the structures of State and society, and nothing, not even the allurements of State and Christian Socialism, nor the countless traps set for it by the laws and the police, nor the state of siege in the capital, can disturb for a single instant, the secret, noiseless, untiring work of this insatiable subterranean destroyer. The Antisemitic movement was merely a convenient pretext for the gratification of passions which do not venture to show themselves under their true names—among the poor and ignorant it cloaked their hatred of property owners, among those who enjoy privileges inherited from mediæval times—among the aristocratic classes, it disguised their jealous fear of gifted rivals in the race for influence and power, and the romantic idealizing youth saw in it a means of satisfying a certain extravagant and false ideal of patriotism that longs not only for the political unity of the German Fatherland, but also for an ethnological unity of the German people. A secret longing that has been hinted at a thousand times but never fully explained, drives thousands upon thousands away from their homes to cross the ocean. The stream of emigrants pours forth from the German sea-ports like the life-stream from a deadly wound in the body of the nation, jet after jet, in constantly increasing volume, and the Government is powerless to arrest or control it. The political parties are waging a barbaric war of extermination upon each other; the prizes for which they are contending are the conditions of the Middle Ages and an absolute monarchy on one side, and on the other, the Nineteenth Century and the right of popular suffrage.
In Austria we see ten nationalities arrayed against each other, each seeking to injure the others by all the means at its command. In every state, even in every village, the majority are trampling the minority under foot. The minority succumbs when resistance is no longer possible, and counterfeits a submission which conceals a secret intensity of rage that makes them long to compass the destruction of the Empire, as the only possibility of relief. In Russia there is such a condition of affairs that we can almost describe it as primitive barbarism. The Government is deaf to every suggestion of mutual rights and advantages; the public official has no care for the interests of the country and of the people that are confided to him, but thinks only of his own, which he shamelessly promotes by robbery or theft, and by corruptibility and prostitution of the laws. The cultivated classes in their despair have grasped Nihilism as their weapon against the present insupportable state of things, and risk their lives again and again, with dynamite and revolver, with the dagger and the torch of the incendiary, to precipitate the country into that bloody chaos, which, in their delirium, they imagine must precede the establishment of a new system of society. The statesmen who are called upon to devise a cure for this horrible disease propose the most astonishing remedies. One guarantees a cure if the Russian people be declared of age and invested with the right of legislative representation; another has confidence alone in a decisive leap backwards into the slough of Asiatic intolerance, and demands the eradication of all European innovations, with an extension of the power of the sacred and inherited despotism of the Czar; a third believes in the efficacy of a counter-irritant, and recommends a brisk, merry war against Germany, Austria, Turkey, or the whole world combined, if need be. The dark mass of the people however, entertains itself by plundering and killing the Jews, during these tedious consultations of its physicians casting greedy glances at the castles of the nobility, while it is destroying the taverns and synagogues of the Hebrews.
In England the ground appears solid and the structure of State firm, to a superficial observer. But if he lay his ear to the ground, and listen to the muffled strokes of the subterranean giants as they hammer away at the weak points in their dungeons; and if he examine the walls closer, he will see that underneath the varnish and gold plating, dangerous cracks extend from top to bottom. The Church and the Aristocracy of rank and wealth, are well organized and firmly allied to uphold each other, with a true appreciation of the identity of their interests. The middle classes bow submissively to the written and unwritten laws of the dominant caste, are outwardly eminently respectable, show reverence to titles, and swear that those things only are seemly which the upper ten thousand approve, every thing else being low and vulgar. But the laborer, the tenant, stand outside the bonds of this conspiracy; they demand their share of capital and land; they form clubs of free-thinkers and republicans; they shake their fists at royalty and aristocracy, and he who seeks to read the future of England, not in the tea-grounds, but in the eyes of the English working-man, will find it dark and threatening. Of Ireland I need not speak. The revolution against landlordism is in full swing there, murder rules the highways, and if the English Government does not succeed in drowning out the inhabitants in a sea of blood, it will be obliged to witness the forcible depossession of the land-owners in favor of the landless class, which will present an example that would speedily be imitated in England, and afterwards in many other countries.
In Italy a feebly rooted monarchy holds its own with difficulty against the rising flood of Republicanism. The Irredenta sets before the young men of the country, a new ideal to long and work for, to take the place of the old ideal of Italian unity which has now become a reality. The secret sufferings of the masses are revealed by isolated but dangerous symptoms, such as the Camorra and Maffia in the south, while in Tuscany, they assume the form of religious fanaticism, and of the communistic principles of primitive Christianity.
France at the present moment can congratulate herself upon the best condition of political health of any European country; but how many incipient symptoms of disease are to be seen even there,—the germs of coming evils. On every street corner in the large cities, excited orators are preaching the gospel of Communism and violence; the masses are preparing to get possession of the government and drive the ruling bourgeoisie out of the snug offices and sinecures which they have enjoyed since 1789, and to take their places in the legislative assemblies. The parties of the old regime see the day of this inevitable conflict approaching, and strive to prepare for it by half-hearted plots and counterplots, jesuitical, monarchical and military, but without energy, without hope and without combination in which alone there is strength.
There is no need to speak of the smaller countries in detail. The name of Spain brings up before us a vision of Carlism and petty insurrections. In Norway every one is absorbed in the conflict between the present Government and representative legislation, within which lurks a future republic like the stone in a peach. Denmark has its Peasant Party and chronic ministerial crisis, Belgium its armed Ultramontanism. All countries, the weak as well as the strong, have their own special ailments for which they vainly hope to find relief, by sacrificing countless millions year after year upon the altar of the military, like those persons in mediæval times who hoped to ensure their recovery from some dangerous disease by presenting their wealth to the church.
The lack of harmony between government and people, the deadly animosity between different political parties, the fermentation going on in certain classes of society, are only manifestations of the universal disease of the age, which is the same in all countries, although its symptoms are characterized by various local names in different places, such as Nihilism, Fenianism, Socialism and the Antisemitic or Irredenta movements. Another and by far more dangerous form is the depression, uneasiness and breaking away, which characterize the mental attitude of every fully developed man who has attained to the heights of modern culture, irrespective of his nation and allegiance or non-allegiance to party or state. This pessimism is the keynote of our age as a delight in mere existence was of the classic ages, and ultra piety of the mediaeval period. Every man of culture feels this sense of irritating discomfort which he ascribes to some slight, casual cause, inevitably the wrong one, unless he analyzes his feelings with unusual care—it leads him to criticise and harshly condemn the varying phases of our modern social life. This impatience upon which all outside influences seem to exert an exciting and even exasperating effect, is called by some nervousness, by others pessimism, and by a third class, skepticism. The multiplicity of names describes but one and the same disease. This disease is visible in every manifestation of modern culture. Literature and art, philosophy and positive knowledge, politics and economy, all are infected by its taint. We discover the very first traces of its existence in the literature of the latter part of the last century, as any disturbances or changes in the conditions of mankind are detected first by the delicate perceptions of a poetic temperament. While the upper classes were following an uninterrupted round of corrupt gayeties, making their lives one prolonged orgy while the self-sufficient bourgeoisie saw nothing beyond the length of their own noses and were stupidly content with the way things were going, of a sudden Jean Jacques Rousseau lifted his voice in a ringing appeal for deliverance from his surroundings which yet had so many attractions. He preached to the world with enthusiasm, of a return to a state of primeval nature, by which he was far from meaning a return to primitive barbarism, but only a change to something diametrically opposed to the actual state of things. His cry awoke an echo in the hearts of all his contemporaries, as when a certain note is struck, all the chords in the instrument which are attuned to it, are set vibrating—a proof that Rousseau’s longings pre-existed unconsciously in those around him. Rakes and Philistines alike began to cultivate their yearnings for primeval nature and life in the wilderness; they formed a comical contrast to the ardor with which they still sought and enjoyed all the super-refinements and gilded vices of the civilization they professed to despise. German Romanticism is descended in a direct line from Rousseau’s longings for primeval nature. It is however a feeble Rousseauism, which did not have the courage to go to the end of the path upon which it had entered. Romanticism does not go as far back as the prehistoric epoch, but stops at a more accessible point, the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages as painted by the Romantic School in such glowing colors, are however, as far removed from the actual Middle Ages of history, as Rousseau’s primeval nature was from the actual times of prehistoric man. In both cases their ideal world was to be constructed in the same way, with everything now existing replaced by its opposite; in both cases their ideas betrayed a conscious or instinctive fundamental conviction that any change from the present must prove an improvement upon the present condition of affairs. By tracing further the genealogical line of this literary tendency, we arrive at French Romanticism, which is a daughter of the German school; and later we come to the Byronic disgust with the world, which forms a separate branch of the same family. From the Byronic line are descended the German pessimistic poets, the Russian Puschkin, the French Musset, and the Italian Leopardi. The family trait in their mental physiognomies is their tragic discontent with the realities of life, which one vents in pathetic moans, another in bitter scorn of self, and a third in enraptured yearnings for different and more perfect conditions of life.
And does not the literature of our own generation, the literary productions of the two last decades, betray an attempt at escape from our age and its disappointments? The public demands novels and poems that treat of the most distant countries and epochs. It devours Freytag’s and Dahn’s sketches of life among the ancient Germanic races, the mediæval poems of Scheffel and his imitators, and the novels of Egyptian, Corinthian and Roman times by Ebers and Eckstein, or if it bestows its favor upon a book that announces its subject as modern, it must recommend itself by a certain false, sickly, sentimental idealism; it must be an attempt to clothe human beings like ourselves, with certain attributes that make them as our imagination delights to picture them, but as no one ever saw them in reality. The light literature of England has long since ceased to be a faithful mirror of real life. When it is not describing with gusto, crimes and scandals of all kinds, murders, burglaries, seductions or testamentary frauds, it portrays a model society, in which the members of the nobility are all handsome, dignified, cultivated and wealthy; while the lower classes are honest God-fearing people, devoted to their superiors, the virtuous among them being graciously praised and rewarded by Sir This or Sir That, while the wicked are locked up by the police—in short, a society which is in all respects an absurd idealization of the dilapidated, tottering structure of society as it exists in England at the present day.
The literature of France does not seem to fit into this frame at the first glance; but a second convinces us of our error. It is true, it limits its field of observation to the present and real in life. It denies itself any suggestions or longings for the past or the future, for any better or any different ideal. It is founded upon a principle of Art, that is called Realism or Naturalism. But let us examine closer: is Naturalism a proof of satisfaction with the present, and in this sense, in opposition to the pseudo historical and fanciful idealization which I have just described to be a powerful manifestation of disgust with the actualities of life, and of longing for their improvement? What are the themes which Naturalism portrays with a partiality for which it has been reproached so often? Does it ever depict any lovely or pleasing phases of this mortal life? No. It describes exclusively the most loathsome and hideous traits of civilization, such as are found mainly in the large cities. It takes especial pains to portray corruption, suffering and moral weakness, human beings sick unto death and a society at its last gasp, and as we finish a work belonging to this school, a plaintive voice seems to murmur with monotonous repetition. “You see, tormented reader, that this life which is here described with an inexorable fidelity to nature, is really not worth living.” This is the fundamental conviction which every production of the Realistic school in literature silently proclaims; it is the starting point, it underlies the whole and forms the closing moral of each work, and is identical with the convictions upon which the false Idealism of England and Germany is based. The two paths, far from leading in opposite directions, conduct the wayfarers to the same goal. Naturalism lays down the premises, Idealism draws the conclusion from them. The former says: “The present conditions of life are intolerable,” the latter adds: “Therefore away with them; let us forget them for one brief moment, and fancy ourselves in that ideal, perfect world which I can call up before my readers by my magic.” The poet who sings in inspired verse of Arcadian simplicity, whose maidens are all beautiful and gay, with love in their hearts and lilies in their hands, living in romantic castles perched upon picturesque mountain peaks tipped with gold by the rising sun, who is called “a noble poet,” by the admiring public, is only the brilliant co-worker of that other author who dips his pen like a shovel, into the mire, and for whom the public can not find language strong enough to express its disgust.
I have lingered upon this subject because the literature of a country is the most complete and many-sided form in which the intellectual activity of any age reveals itself. But all the other manifestations of human thought of the present time allow us also to discern the same traits as those in the physiognomy of modern literature. All around us we notice a general sense of uneasiness and a mental irritation, which assumes in one mind the form of grief or anger at the unbearable state of affairs in this world, and in another, produces a decided longing for a change in all the conditions of modern life.
The aim of the creative arts in former ages was the reproduction of the beautiful. The painter and the sculptor seized and perpetuated only the pleasing scenes that life and the world offered them. When Phidias was at work upon his Zeus, and Raphael was painting his Madonna, their hands were guided by a naive admiration of the human form per se. They experienced a delight and satisfaction in reproducing nature and when their delicate artistic taste recognized some slight imperfection in her, they hastily and discreetly toned it down, with an apologetic and idealizing touch. The art of to-day knows neither their satisfaction nor their naive admiration. It examines nature with a frowning brow and a keen, malicious eye, skilled in discovering faults and blemishes; it portrays under the pretext of fidelity to truth, all the imperfections in the visible form, involuntarily exaggerating them and giving them undue prominence. I repeat, under the pretext of truth, for truth itself does not lie within such means. The artist naturally reproduces his model as he sees and feels it himself; Courbet’s ugly Stonebreaker is as far removed from absolute truth, as Lionardi’s lovely Mona Lisa, from which Vasari drew his inspiration on account of its supposed fidelity to nature. And even when modern art is compelled to recognize the beautiful and pay unwilling tribute to it by perpetuating it, the artist contrives to suggest a flaw in it, by smuggling in a hint that the noble and glorious form is used for base purposes and is consequently contaminated. The of the nude female figure is destroyed by a vague insinuation of sensuality and wantonness, which mars every modern painting of this class. It is sure to exert upon the susceptible observer the same kind of influence as the “If you only knew what I know!” whispered by some malicious, old scandal-monger into the ear of her neighbor, when the virtues of some acquaintance are being praised. Ancient art is characterized by a pleased enjoyment of nature; modern art by a self-tormenting dissatisfaction with her. One glorifies her, the other complains of her. One is a constant ode in her honor, the other an incessant, harsh and unfounded criticism. The point of view of the former was that we are living in the most beautiful of all possible worlds, and of the latter, that our world could hardly be more hideous than it is.
Pessimism is also the fashionable coloring of thought now in philosophy, not only in the established philosophies taught in the universities, but also in the private systems of philosophical thought and enquiry, which every person of culture has built up for himself around the important problems of the day. In Germany, Schopenhauer is God and Hartmann is his prophet. The Positivism of Auguste Comte is making no progress either as doctrine or sect, for even its followers have acknowledged that its methods were too circumscribed and its aims not sufficiently high. The philosophers of France are confining their investigations to psychology, or, to be more exact, to psycho-physiology. English philosophy has lost its right to the title of metaphysics, as it has abandoned its higher task, that of seeking a satisfactory view of the world, and is only occupied by questions of secondary importance, John Stuart Mill is studying logic alone, that is to say, the doctrine of forms for human thought; Herbert Spencer is busy with social science—that is, the mental and moral problems which arise in social life; Bain is devoting his time to theories of education, which include the study of psychology and moral philosophy. Germany alone has a living school of metaphysics, but it is dismal and hopeless. Good Dr Pangloss is dead and he has left no heirs behind him. Hegelism, which provided a sufficient cause for every thing and allowed its followers to convince themselves that whatever is, is logical and necessary, has followed its predecessors to the store-room for old and worn-out systems of philosophy, and the world is now attracted by that philosophy which proclaims that this intolerable universe will finally sink again into nothing, owing to the wish of all created beings and things for complete annihilation.
This same disease of the age shows itself in the realms of political economy in a different but no less significant form. We seek in vain among the rich a feeling of security in regard to their wealth and of simple enjoyment of it; neither do we find among the poor that patient acquiescence in the poverty which appears so inevitable and unchangeable to human eyes. An undefined fear of approaching danger haunts the man of wealth; he sees a menace in the present condition of men and affairs, indistinct but none the less real, so that he has come to look upon his possessions as a loan that can be demanded from him, without reprieve,, from one moment to another. The poor man in consumed by envy and greed for the wealth of the privileged few; neither in himself nor in the existing arrangement of the world and society, as he has learned to understand it, does he discover any convincing reason for the fact that he is poor, and hence excluded from the table of life’s pleasures. He listens with fierce impatience to a voice within him which whispers that his rights to the blessings of this life are as good as any man’s. The rich man is dreading; the poor man is hoping and working to bring about a change in the present condition of property ownership. The faith in a continuance of its present state has been rudely shaken in the minds of all, even in those who will not acknowledge their secret doubts and anxieties.
What do we learn from the domestic politics of each one of all the civilized countries of Europe? The contrasts are becoming sharper all the time, the struggles between the political parties more and more violent. The Conservative adherents of the existing state of affairs are gradually dying off, and one of these days there will be none left upon the surface of the earth. In vain will a Quietist leader be sought to demonstrate that the present arrangements of state and society should not be disturbed but maintained as they are. There are no more Conservatives. This title would have to be dropped from the political nomenclature of the day if it were applied according to its strictly literal meaning. A Conservative is one who wishes to maintain existing institutions. Nobody nowadays confines himself to this platform. Fighting on the defensive is all out of date; only the offensive systems of political warfare are practiced. There only remains Reaction or Reform—that is, revolution forwards or backwards. The former wishes to recall the past, the latter to hasten the future. The Reactionist hates the present fully as much as the Liberal. This universal mental restlessness and uneasiness exerts a powerful and many-sided influence upon individual life. A dread of examining and comprehending the actualities of life prevails to a frightfully alarming extent, and manifests itself in a thousand ways. The means of sensation and perception are eagerly counterfeited by altering the nervous system by the use of stimulating or narcotic poisons of all kinds, manifesting thereby an instinctive aversion to the realities of appearances and circumstances. It is true that we are only capable of perceiving the changes in our own organism, not those going on around us. But the changes within us are caused, most probably, by objects outside of us; our senses give us a picture of those objects, whose reliability is surely more to be depended upon, when only warped by the imperfections in our normal selves, than when, to these unavoidable sources of error is added a conscious disturbance in the functions of the nervous system caused by the use of various poisons. Only when our perceptions of things around us awake in us a feeling of positive discomfort, do we realize the necessity of warding off these unpleasant sensations, or of modifying them, until they become more agreeable. This is the cause of the constant increase in the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, shown by statistics, and of the rapidity with which the custom of taking opium and morphine is spreading. It is also the reason why the cultivated classes seize upon every new narcotic or stimulant which science discovers for them, so that we have not only drunkards and opium eaters among us, but confirmed chloral, chloroform and ether drinkers. Society as a whole, repeats the action of the individual, who tries to “drown his sorrows in the flowing bowl.” It seeks oblivion of the present, and grasps at anything that will provide it with the necessary illusions by which it can escape from real life.
Hand in hand with this instinctive self-deception and attempt at temporary oblivion of the actual world, goes the final plunge into eternal oblivion: statistics prove that the number of suicides is increasing in thy highly civilized countries, in direct proportion to the increase in the use of alcohol and narcotics. A dull sensation of irritation, sometimes self-conscious, but more often only recognized as a vague, irresistible discontent, keeps the aspiring in a state of gloomy restlessness, so that the struggle for existence assumes brutal and desperate phases, never known before. This struggle is no longer a conflict between polite antagonists who salute each other with courtesy before they open fire, like the English and French before the battle of Fontenoy, but it is a pell-mell, hand to hand fight of rough cut-throats, drunk with whisky and blood, who fall upon each other with brute ferocity, neither giving nor expecting mercy. We lament the disappearance of characters. What is a character? It is an individuality which shapes its career according to certain simple, fundamental moral principles which it has recognized as good, and accepted as guides. Skepticism developes no such characters, because it has excluded faith in fundamental principles. When the north star ceases to shine, and the electric pole vanishes, the compass is of no further use—the stationary point is gone to which it was always turning. Skepticism, also a fashionable ailment, is in reality but another phase of the universal discontent with the present. For it is only by becoming convinced that the world is out of sorts generally, and that everything is wrong, insufficient and contemptible, that we arrive at the conclusion that all is vanity, and nothing worth an effort, or a struggle between duty and inclination. Economy, literature and art, philosophy, politics and all phases of social and individual life, show a certain fundamental trait, common to all—a deep dissatisfaction with the world as it exists at present, From each one of these multitudinous manifestations of human intelligence arises a bitter cry, the same in all cases, an appeal for a radical change.
The question here arises: Is this picture true of modern times alone? Does it not also represent the characteristics of all previous ages?
I am far from being an enthusiast on the subject of days that are past. I am no believer in any Golden Age. The life of man has always been more or less of a struggle; he has always known discontent and unhappiness. Pessimism has a physiological basis, and a certain measure of suffering is entailed upon us by the nature of our organism. It is by suffering that we first become conscious of our Ego. Our Ego is first brought to our consciousness by a perception of its limitations; and this perception of its limitations is never awakened save by its coming in contact, more or less rudely, with something outside of it.
As, in a dark room, a person has the fact of the existence of the walls brought to his mind, only by knocking his head against them. Man purchases his consciousness therefore with the sensation of pain, and he only learns by repeated discomfort the difference between the subject and the object. But if it is true that mankind has always suffered and complained, that it has experienced in all ages, the sad contrast between desire and possession, between the ideal and the real, it is none the less true that discontent was never so deep nor so universal, nor was it ever manifested in so many directions, nor did it ever present itself in such radical forms as at present.
As we turn the pages of history we find them filled with records of party struggles and revolutions. It often seems to a superficial observer as if the selfish ambition of some party leader, to which the multitudes were wholly indifferent, were the sole power that set some of these revolutions in motion. But I do not believe in the justice of thus identifying these movements with their leaders. Parties are formed and flock to their standards, because they fancy they recognize in their battle-cries the expression of their own indistinct aspirations; and even if the ambitious leader manipulates the passions of the masses, applying them to his own use, as the manufacturer compels the forces of wind, water and steam to do his bidding, he will not be successful in the end, unless he pretends to be working for the accomplishment of certain popular wishes. Party struggles are to a people, what change is to the hod-carrier, as he shifts his hod from one shoulder to the other, a temporary but not a genuine relief, and revolutions are freshets intended to equalize the ideals of the people and the actual conditions of life. They are never arbitrary, but obey certain physical laws, like the cyclone, which re-establishes the equilibrium of air, disturbed by violent changes in the temperature, or like the waterfall, which is constantly striving to bring two bodies of water to the same level. As often as there is found to be too great a difference between the wishes of the people and the actual reality of things, in obedience to the laws of nature a revolution takes place; it may be dammed up artificially by the organized powers for a while but not for long. Revolutions are consequently the only witnesses of history which allow us to draw conclusions from their extent and aims as to the degree and the causes of the preceding popular discontent.
Until the most recent times, revolutions were all of comparatively small extent, and directed against a limited number of abuses. The political contests among the republicans of ancient Rome were caused by the struggle between the patricians and the plebeians. What were the aspirations of the latter which assumed corporate form in Catiline and the Gracchi? They wanted a fair share in the public lands and they demanded a voice in the discussion of state affairs. In the ancient communities the individual citizen had a remarkably highly developed sense of respect and responsibility for the welfare of the commonwealth, and also for the duties and privileges arising from his connection with it. He seemed to think that taken alone, he was a contemptible fragment, but fitted into his proper place in the structure of the state, he became a complete and rounded whole. The Roman plebeian looked upon himself as the unjustly despised and disinherited son of a wealthy house, and merely demanded his seat at the paternal board, and his share in the family discussions—the thought of rebelling against the surrounding conditions of political and social life, never occurred to him. He was proud of them, and paid them willing and delighted homage. He looked up to the patrician on account of his rank and neither envied him his lineage, nor the outward symbols of his exalted position. He contentedly took that position on the scale of social rank which the accident of his birth had assigned to him, and although he glanced with reverential awe at the aristocratic and senatorial families above him, he could experience a sensation of self-esteem and satisfaction when he looked down upon the multitudes of slaves and freed-men beneath him.
Far deeper was the discontent of those slaves who rose in insurrection again and again, during that corrupt age when the republic was being merged into an empire, protesting with their life-blood against the existing arrangement of society, in battles whose tragic pathos is beyond description. In those nameless multitudes who form the living pedestal for the grand figure of Spartacus, we discover for the first time, traces of that burning doubt whether everything that is, must of necessity always remain so. This doubt never seems to have entered into the minds of the burden-bearing Egyptians, whom we see represented in such long, silent, dreary processions on the walls of ancient tombs and temples. Neither has it touched with its poisoned tip the two hundred millions of India, who in silent acquiescence bear the yoke of the English, as for centuries, they bore that of Caste. But the followers of Spartacus were neither radicals nor pessimists, according to our ideas. They attacked the goad, not him who wielded it. Their anger was not directed against the regulation of the world, but only against their position in it. Did they recognize the fact that reason refuses to sanction the degradation of men with will and judgment into mere property, like cattle and inanimate things? By no means. They accepted the institution of slavery without question, only they did not want to be slaves themselves. Their ideal was not the abolition of an unreasonable form of social life, but simply an exchange of roles. These insurgents would have been easily pacified. A victory would have transformed their despair into contentment, and converted the rebels into model pillars of society.
The uprisings of the Middle Ages possess a deeper mental significance. The iconoclastic movements, the Crusades, the fanaticism of the Albigenses and Waldenses, reveal a condition of deep mental uneasiness. The magic fascination of that mysterious land beneath the rising sun, would not have been felt by an uncultivated nature, unless it had already been experiencing an incoherent longing for change from its surroundings. The hundreds of thousands who flocked to Palestine from Europe, were not following so much the banner of the Cross, as a bright vision which floated on before them, visible only to their mental eyes, whose name was the Ideal. He who was thoroughly contented did not leave his happy fireside to trudge through unknown perils to the Holy Sepulchre; it was only the restless and uneasy mind that welcomed change and the possibility of improvement. Neither were those thousands contented with their lot who gave themselves up to torture and death for the sake of their religion; who, to maintain some doctrinal point, marched placidly to the stake, or, in their fanaticism, exterminated entire peoples. For to him who is exercised by such a feverish anxiety for the salvation of his soul and for the terms upon which he can secure future bliss, who spends this life in preparing himself for the next, by such incredible sacrifices, struggles and sufferings, to him this world can not have appealed with any convincing attractions.
Thus we see that mankind during the Middle Ages was also disturbed and discontented; what restrained it from any open revolt against the then existing conditions of life, was the fact that it found in its religious faith a comfort and peace which made it bear all earthly ills with ease and even delight. He who is confidently awaiting some great happiness close at hand accepts with facile resignation a passing discomfort and in fact is hardly conscious of it.
But mankind developed and the consolation of Religion began to wane. The moment arrived when religious faith ceased to be the reliable safety valve for the rebellious tendencies of the discontented. That moment was critical. A trifle more, and the skepticism and tearing loose from old traditions, which characterize the present age, would have broken out four hundred years ago. The people did not allow themselves however, to be robbed of their cherished illusions without resistance, and made great efforts to retain them. This struggle for a consoling ideal is called in history the Reformation. It had the effect of postponing for centuries the awakening of the world from its pleasant dream. But even then there appeared certain isolated symptoms of the evolution of a pessimism which the faith in a happy hereafter could no longer entirely stifle. The Peasants’ war in Germany was the last resort of despairing men, to whom an eternal Paradise did not seem a sufficient indemnification for misery in this world. They wanted to force a payment on account, on the sum of happiness coming to them in the future.
It is not until as late as the French Revolution that we find a people to whom the existing state of affairs appeared so entirely unsatisfactory that they were willing to make any sacrifices, pay any price, to have it changed. For the first time in the history of mankind, we see an extensive, popular uprising not directed against single abuses, but against the general conditions of things, in their entirety. No poor people were clamoring for a share in the ager publicus, like the Roman plebeians,—no disfranchised were struggling for their rights as human beings, like the slaves led by Spartacus,—no special class was fighting for certain privileges, like the cities in the Middle Ages,—nor was it an insurrection of visionaries, eager to bear arms in behalf of their religion, like the Waldenses, Albigenses, the Huguenots and the protestant reformers. All these elements, with a thousand others, combined to form the French Revolution. It was at the same time material and intellectual. It denied all faith in Religion, and questioned the established form of individual possession of property. It attempted to reconstruct state and society upon a new foundation and according to a new plan. It wished to create new and more favorable conditions of existence for body and mind. It was an explosion which took effect not only upon isolated weak points, but upon the whole surface exposed to it, and brought down in ruins the entire structure of society. It is true that the incongruity of the then existing circumstances must have been felt with fearful intensity by all, and have caused intense suffering, to have produced such an attempt at complete annihilation, yet we notice in this great Revolution, one trait which makes it impossible for us to look upon the mental attitude of man at that period as so wretched as at present. This trait is the prevailing, inexhaustible optimism. Indeed, the men of the great Revolution were entirely free from any taint of pessimism. They were filled with hope and assurance to overflowing. They were firmly convinced that they possessed unfailing means for ensuring absolute happiness to mankind; and with this conviction it is impossible to be unhappy. They were in the mood of spring-time and dawn, such as inspired Uhland when he exclaimed: “Die Welt wird schöner mit jedem Tag—Nun muss sich Alles, Alles wenden!” This youth fulness, even childishness, of hope and illusions, this delight in the outlook into the future, is perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon connected with the great Revolution.
We learn from our rapid scanning of the past centuries, that the present tone of thought is without precedent. History contains the record of but one moment that reminds us of our own in this respect, and this is the period of the death agony of the ancient world. This resemblance has been shown repeatedly. The people had outgrown the old ideas, and new ones to replace them, had not yet been discovered. They believed no longer in the doctrines of paganism, nor in the teachings of the philosophers. The theories upon which their lives had hitherto been based were found to be erroneous, and consequently the latter had become illogical and without meaning. A weariness and hopeless dejection had consequently crept into the hearts of men; they could find no relief in their own resources nor in anything around them. They lost even the last vestige of faith in a possible improvement and committed suicide by thousands, unable to resist the ravages of the moral epidemic. That dismal time when the Roman Empire was tottering to its fall, and paganism in its death throes, is the only period in which we meet with the same depression, the same restless spirit of investigation and fault-finding, the same skepticism in superficial and pessimism in deep minds which characterize our own highly civilized age. But after all, there is a difference between the two periods; this hopeless despair of the future only attacked the aristocracy of mind, comparatively a few in ancient Rome, while the masses lived out their existence in stolid unconcern, looking upon the great tragedy of the age merely as an exterior, material misfortune. But in our time this pessimism lowers like a dense, black cloud over the vast majority of cultivated human beings. The difference therefore is more in extent than in kind—but extent is the very point that distinguishes an epidemic from a disease.
Whence comes this mental distress common to all civilized peoples? To what cause can we trace the development of this unparalleled irritation and embittering,, which prevails with such alarming severity among all the tinkers of an age which seems to offer even to the poorest, a wealth of material and intellectual pleasures, such as no monarch of former times was able to procure. The cause? It is identical with that which flooded the hearts of the later Romans with such utter disgust at the emptiness of life, that they sought refuge in self-destruction to escape from it. It is owing to the opposition between the world as it is, with all its phases of individual, social and civil life, and the way in which we now comprehend the significance of the universe. Every one of our actions contradicts our convictions, flouts them, gives them the lie. An impassible chasm separates that which we know to be truth, and the actual conditions of life under which we are compelled to live and carry on our individual and social existence.
Our view of the world, that accepted consciously or unconsciously by all cultivated minds of the present day, is from the standpoint of natural science. We look upon the universe as a vast aggregation of matter, possessing the attribute of motion which reveals itself to us under the form of various physical laws, some of which we have discovered, defined and proved, while we are as yet only on the track of the rest—these laws we accept as immutable and without possibility of exception. The problem of the beginning and final destiny of things we have given up as impossible to be solved with the means of our organism. As a matter of convenience we have accepted as a provisory conclusion for certain trains of thought, the hypothesis that matter is eternal. The acceptance of this theory, the only purely arbitrary one in our system, serves to explain to us all the various phenomena of nature, while it does not contradict our comprehension of physical laws. It excuses us from accepting any theory in regard to an eternal will or intelligence, or as man has always designated it, God, which would have the disadvantage of forcing upon us, if we accepted it, a whole series of similar hypotheses, such as prophecy, the soul and immortality, all of which are incapable of proof, and can not be sustained by our reason, while at the same time they are in direct opposition to all the laws of nature, which we know to be fixed and unyielding facts. If we descend from the universe to our race, to man, we see in him, as a necessary consequence of our conceptions of material nature, merely a Jiving being, fitting perfectly into its allotted place in the ranks of living organisms, and governed in all things by the common laws of the organic world. We can discover no proofs of any special favors or privileges granted to man more than those enjoyed by every other animal or vegetable organism. We believe that the development of the human as well as of all other races, was perhaps first made possible by sexual selection, and certainly promoted by it; and that the struggle for existence, using the term in its most comprehensive sense, shapes the destinies of nations as well as of the most obscure individual and is the foundation for all forms of political and social life.
This is our conception of the universe, our belief. Upon this base are founded all our principles, and our conceptions of justice and morality. It has become an elementary constituent part of our civilization. We inhale it with the air we breathe. It has become impossible to close our intellects against it. The pope who denounced it in his encyclical, was under its influence. The Jesuits try in vain to save their pupils from its taint, by bringing them up in an artificial atmosphere of mediæval theology and scholastics, as a marine animal is kept alive in an inland aquarium, by salt water brought from the distant sea; but they are already filled with it, they take it in as they read the posters on the walls, as they notice the manners of their associates, as they read their pious magazines and books, when they are buying a breviary—their whole mental and moral life is unconsciously permeated and colored by it; they have involuntary thoughts and perceptions, such as the man of the Eleventh Century never imagined, in vain do they try to perform the impossible—they cannot help being the children of this modern age and of its specific civilization.
And, with this belief, we are obliged to live in the midst of a civilization, which allows one man, by the accident of his birth, to assume the most extensive rights over millions of his fellow-men, his equals in every respect and in many cases, his superiors; which pays homage to another who repeats words without any sense and makes purposeless gestures, as the visible incorporation of super-natural powers; which forbids a maiden in a certain station of life, to marry a handsome, blooming, powerful individual, but mates her with some unattractive, feeble and crippled being because he is her equal in rank, while the former belongs to a so-called lower class; which permits a healthy and strong laboring man to go hungry, while some sickly and incapable idler is surrounded by a superfluity which he is unable to enjoy. We, who believe that the human race has been evolved from some lower form of life, who know that all individuals without exception, are created, live out their lives and pass away, all in accordance with the same organic laws—we are obliged to kneel before a king; we are expected to reverence in him a being set apart from all ordinary laws and conditions, and are forbidden to smile when we read on the coins and in the official decrees of the Government that “by the grace of God,” he is, what he is. We, convinced as we are, that every occurrence in this world is the result of certain irresistible and unchangeable physical laws, are yet compelled to look on while the Government pays certain priests, whose official duty it is, to conduct ceremonies with the declared purpose of exerting an influence upon events in this world, which can only take effect by a suspension or revocation of nature’s laws; we are expected as occasion offers, to take part in some imposing mass or church service to beg for special favors from some mysterious, supernatural power, whose existence both nature and physical science refuse to recognize as possible, and we award a high rank in state and society to those persons who preside at these inconsistent mummeries. We believe in the powerful and beneficent effect of sexual selection, and yet we defend the modern conventional marriage, which, in its present form, directly excludes it. We acknowledge the struggle for existence as the inevitable foundation for all law and morality, and yet, every day we pass laws to uphold and perpetuate conditions which absolutely prevent the free exercise of our powers, and deny to the strong and those worthy of the fullest life, the right to make use of their strength, and we stigmatize their inevitable victory over the feeble, as a capital crime. Thus our whole system of life is based upon false principles which we have inherited from former ages, which are in direct and flagrant opposition to every one of our present convictions. The form and the spirit of our life as citizens are at constant and open variance. Every word that we speak, every action, is a direct lie against that which we acknowledge as truth in our hearts. Thus we are always parodying our own selves, and acting a perpetual farce, which wearies us to death, in spite of our being accustomed to it, which requires a constant denial on our part of every one of our most cherished beliefs and convictions, and which, in moments of introspection, fills us with disgust and contempt of our own conduct and of everything around us. We assume at every opportunity a costume that looks to our own eyes like a fool’s jacket but which we wear with apparent satisfaction and a thousand airs and graces; we counterfeit out-ward reverence for certain persons and things, which appear to our innermost hearts, as absurd in the highest degree, and we cling like cowards, to certain conventionalities, whose utter incongruity we feel with every fibre of our being.
This perpetual conflict between the existing conditions of the world and our secret convictions, has a most tragic reaction upon the inner life of the individual. We seem to ourselves like clowns, who set others to laughing by the jokes, which to them are so flat and stale. Ignorance is easily combined with a kind of animal sense of comfort, and we can live happy and contented, if we accept all our surroundings as necessary and right. The Inquisition, in rooting out doubt with the sword and the stake, intended to benefit humanity in its own way, by saving to man his pleasure in existence. But as soon as we recognize the fact that the hitherto cherished institutions have lost their vitality and are all out of date, that they are empty, foolish phantoms, partly scarecrows, partly theatre properties, we experience the horror and longing for escape, the discouragement and disgust, which would fill the mind and heart of a living man locked in a vault with the dead, or of a sane man imprisoned with lunatics, obliged to humor their vagaries, to escape physical violence.
This perpetual conflict between our ideas, and all forms of our civilization, this necessity for carrying on our existence in the midst of institutions which we consider to be lies—these are the causes of our pessimism and skepticism. This is the frightful rent that goes through the entire civilized world. In this insupportable contradiction we lose all enjoyment of life and all inclination for effort. It is the cause of that feverish sense of discomfort that disturbs the people of culture in all countries today. In it we find the solution of the problem of the dismal tone of modern thought.
It will be the task of the following chapters to set forth in detail the different phases of this discordant strife between the principal conventional lies of our civilization, and the truths they deny, based on natural science, which we have adopted as our conceptions of the universe.