The Unseen World and Other Essays
By John Fiske

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IN a very interesting essay on British and Foreign Characteristics, published a few years ago, Mr. W. R. Greg quotes the famous letter of the Turkish cadi to Mr. Layard, with the comment that “it contains the germ and element of a wisdom to which our busy and bustling existence is a stranger"; and he uses it as a text for an instructive sermon on the “gospel of leisure.” He urges, with justice, that the too eager and restless modern man, absorbed in problems of industrial development, may learn a wholesome lesson from the contemplation of his Oriental brother, who cares not to say, “Behold, this star spinneth round that star, and this other star with a tail cometh and goeth in so many years"; who aspires not after a “double stomach,” nor hopes to attain to Paradise by “seeking with his eyes.” If any one may be thought to stand in need of some such lesson, it is the American of to-day. Just as far as the Turk carries his apathy to excess, does the American carry to excess his restlessness. But just because the incurious idleness of the Turk is excessive, so as to be detrimental to completeness of living, it is unfit to supply us with the hints we need concerning the causes, character, and effects of our over-activity. A sermon of leisure, if it is to be of practical use to us, must not be a sermon of laziness. The Oriental state of mind is incompatible with progressive improvement of any sort, physical, intellectual, or moral. It is one of the phenomena attendant upon the arrival of a community at a stationary condition before it has acquired a complex civilization. And it appears serviceable rather as a background upon which to exhibit in relief our modern turmoil, than by reason of any lesson which it is itself likely to convey. Let us in preference study one of the most eminently progressive of all the communities that have existed. Let us take an example quite different from any that can be drawn from Oriental life, but almost equally contrasted with any that can be found among ourselves; and let us, with the aid of it, examine the respective effects of leisure and of hurry upon the culture of the community.

What do modern critics mean by the “healthy completeness” of ancient life, which they are so fond of contrasting with the “heated,” “discontented,” or imperfect and one-sided existence of modern communities? Is this a mere set of phrases, suited to some imaginary want of the literary critic, but answering to nothing real? Are they to be summarily disposed of as resting upon some tacit assumption of that old-grannyism which delights in asseverating that times are not what they used to be? Is the contrast an imaginary one, due to the softened, cheerful light with which we are wont to contemplate classic antiquity through the charmed medium of its incomparable literature? Or is it a real contrast, worthy of the attention and analysis of the historical inquirer? The answer to these queries will lead us far into the discussion of the subject which we have propounded, and we shall best reach it by considering some aspects of the social condition of ancient Greece. The lessons to be learned from that wonderful country are not yet exhausted Each time that we return to that richest of historic mines, and delve faithfully and carefully, we shall be sure to dig up some jewel worth carrying away.

And in considering ancient Greece, we shall do well to confine our attention, for the sake of definiteness of conception, to a single city. Comparatively homogeneous as Greek civilization was, there was nevertheless a great deal of difference between the social circumstances of sundry of its civic communities. What was true of Athens was frequently not true of Sparta or Thebes, and general assertions about ancient Greece are often likely to be collect only in a loose and general way. In speaking, therefore, of Greece, I must be understood in the main as referring to Athens, the eye and light of Greece, the nucleus and centre of Hellenic culture.

Let us note first that Athens was a large city surrounded by pleasant village-suburbs,—the demes of Attika,—very much as Boston is closely girdled by rural places like Brookline, Jamaica Plain, and the rest, village after village rather thickly covering a circuit of from ten to twenty miles’ radius. The population of Athens with its suburbs may perhaps have exceeded half a million; but the number of adult freemen bearing arms did not exceed twenty-five thousand.[67] For every one of these freemen there were four or five slaves; not ignorant, degraded labourers, belonging to an inferior type of humanity, and bearing the marks of a lower caste in their very personal formation and in the colour of their skin, like our lately-enslaved negroes; but intelligent, skilled labourers, belonging usually to the Hellenic, and at any rate to the Aryan race, as fair and perhaps as handsome as their masters, and not subjected to especial ignominy or hardship. These slaves, of whom there were at least one hundred thousand adult males, relieved the twenty-five thousand freemen of nearly all the severe drudgery of life; and the result was an amount of leisure perhaps never since known on an equal scale in history.

[67] See Herod. V. 97; Aristoph. Ekkl. 432; Thukyd. II. 13; Plutarch, Perikl. 37.

The relations of master and slave in ancient Athens constituted, of course, a very different phenomenon from anything which the history of our own Southern States has to offer us. Our Southern slaveholders lived in an age of industrial development; they were money-makers: they had their full share of business in managing the operations for which their labourers supplied the crude physical force. It was not so in Athens. The era of civilization founded upon organized industry had not begun; money-making had not come to be, with the Greeks, the one all-important end of life; and mere subsistence, which is now difficult, was then easy. The Athenian lived in a mild, genial, healthy climate, in a country which has always been notable for the activity and longevity of its inhabitants. He was frugal in his habits,—a wine-drinker and an eater of meat, but rarely addicted to gluttony or intemperance. His dress was inexpensive, for the Greek climate made but little protection necessary, and the gymnastic habits of the Greeks led them to esteem more highly the beauty of the body than that of its covering. His house was simple, not being intended for social purposes, while of what we should call home-life the Greeks had none. The house was a shelter at night, a place where the frugal meal might be taken, a place where the wife might stay, and look after the household slaves or attend to the children. And this brings us to another notable feature of Athenian life. The wife having no position in society, being nothing, indeed, but a sort of household utensil, how greatly was life simplified! What a door for expenditure was there, as yet securely closed, and which no one had thought of opening! No milliner’s or dressmaker’s bills, no evening parties, no Protean fashions, no elegant furniture, no imperious necessity for Kleanthes to outshine Kleon, no coaches, no Chateau Margaux, no journeys to Arkadia in the summer! In such a state of society, as one may easily see, the labour of one man would support half a dozen. It cost the Athenian but a few cents daily to live, and even these few cents might be earned by his slaves. We need not, therefore, be surprised to learn that in ancient Athens there were no paupers or beggars. There might be poverty, but indigence was unknown; and because of the absence of fashion, style, and display, even poverty entailed no uncomfortable loss of social position. The Athenians valued wealth highly, no doubt, as a source of contributions to public festivals and to the necessities of the state. But as far as the circumstances of daily life go, the difference between the rich man and the poor man was immeasurably less than in any modern community, and the incentives to the acquirement of wealth were, as a consequence, comparatively slight.

I do not mean to say that the Athenians did not engage in business. Their city was a commercial city, and their ships covered the Mediterranean. They had agencies and factories at Marseilles, on the remote coasts of Spain, and along the shores of the Black Sea. They were in many respects the greatest commercial people of antiquity, and doubtless knew, as well as other people, the keen delights of acquisition. But my point is, that with them the acquiring of property had not become the chief or only end of life. Production was carried on almost entirely by slave-labour; interchange of commodities was the business of the masters, and commerce was in those days simple. Banks, insurance companies, brokers’ boards,—all these complex instruments of Mammon were as yet unthought of. There was no Wall Street in ancient Athens; there were no great failures, no commercial panics, no over-issues of stock. Commerce, in short, was a quite subordinate matter, and the art of money-making was in its infancy.

The twenty-five thousand Athenian freemen thus enjoyed, on the whole, more undisturbed leisure, more freedom from petty harassing cares, than any other community known to history. Nowhere else can we find, on careful study, so little of the hurry and anxiety which destroys the even tenour of modern life,—nowhere else so few of the circumstances which tend to make men insane, inebriate, or phthisical, or prematurely old.

This being granted, it remains only to state and illustrate the obverse fact. It is not only true that Athens has produced and educated a relatively larger number of men of the highest calibre and most complete culture than any other community of like dimensions which has ever existed; but it is also true that there has been no other community, of which the members have, as a general rule, been so highly cultivated, or have attained individually such completeness of life. In proof of the first assertion it will be enough to mention such names as those of Solon, Themistokles, Perikles, and Demosthenes; Isokrates and Lysias; Aristophanes and Menander; Aischylos, Sophokles, and Euripides; Pheidias and Praxiteles; Sokrates and Plato; Thukydides and Xenophon: remembering that these men, distinguished for such different kinds of achievement, but like each other in consummateness of culture, were all produced within one town in the course of three centuries. At no other time and place in human history has there been even an approach to such a fact as this.

My other assertion, about the general culture of the community in which such men were reared, will need a more detailed explanation. When I say that the Athenian public was, on the whole, the most highly cultivated public that has ever existed, I refer of course to something more than what is now known as literary culture. Of this there was relatively little in the days of Athenian greatness; and this was because there was not yet need for it or room for it. Greece did not until a later time begin to produce scholars and savants; for the function of scholarship does not begin until there has been an accumulation of bygone literature to be interpreted for the benefit of those who live in a later time. Grecian greatness was already becoming a thing of the past, when scholarship and literary culture of the modern type began at Rome and Alexandria. The culture of the ancient Athenians was largely derived from direct intercourse with facts of nature and of life, and with the thoughts of rich and powerful minds orally expressed. The value of this must not be underrated. We moderns are accustomed to get so large a portion of our knowledge and of our theories of life out of books, our taste and judgment are so largely educated by intercourse with the printed page, that we are apt to confound culture with book-knowledge; we are apt to forget the innumerable ways in which the highest intellectual faculties may be disciplined without the aid of literature. We must study antiquity to realize how thoroughly this could be done. But even in our day, how much more fruitful is the direct influence of an original mind over us, in the rare cases when it can be enjoyed, than any indirect influence which the same mind may exert through the medium of printed books! What fellow of a college, placed amid the most abundant and efficient implements of study, ever gets such a stimulus to the highest and richest intellectual life as was afforded to Eckermann by his daily intercourse with Goethe? The breadth of culture and the perfection of training exhibited by John Stuart Mill need not surprise us when we recollect that his earlier days were spent in the society of James Mill and Jeremy Bentham. And the remarkable extent of view, the command of facts, and the astonishing productiveness of such modern Frenchmen as Sainte-Beuve and Littre become explicable when we reflect upon the circumstance that so many able and brilliant men are collected in one city, where their minds may continually and directly react upon each other. It is from the lack of such personal stimulus that it is difficult or indeed wellnigh impossible, even for those whose resources are such as to give them an extensive command of books, to keep up to the highest level of contemporary culture while living in a village or provincial town. And it is mainly because of the personal stimulus which it affords to its students, that a great university, as a seat of culture, is immeasurably superior to a small one.

Nevertheless, the small community in any age possesses one signal advantage over the large one, in its greater simplicity of life and its consequent relative leisure. It was the prerogative of ancient Athens that it united the advantages of the large to those of the small community. In relative simplicity of life it was not unlike the modern village, while at the same time it was the metropolis where the foremost minds of the time were enabled to react directly upon one another. In yet another respect these opposite advantages were combined. The twenty-five thousand free inhabitants might perhaps all know something of each other. In this respect Athens was doubtless much like a New England country town, with the all-important difference that the sordid tone due to continual struggle for money was absent. It was like the small town in the chance which it afforded for publicity and community of pursuits among its inhabitants. Continuous and unrestrained social intercourse was accordingly a distinctive feature of Athenian life. And, as already hinted, this intercourse did not consist in evening flirtations, with the eating of indigestible food at unseasonable hours, and the dancing of “the German.” It was carried on out-of-doors in the brightest sunlight; it brooked no effeminacy; its amusements were athletic games, or dramatic entertainments, such as have hardly since been equalled. Its arena was a town whose streets were filled with statues and adorned with buildings, merely to behold which was in itself an education. The participators in it were not men with minds so dwarfed by exclusive devotion to special pursuits that after “talking shop” they could find nothing else save wine and cookery to converse about. They were men with minds fresh and open for the discussion of topics which are not for a day only.

A man like Sokrates, living in such a community, did not need to write down his wisdom. He had no such vast public as the modern philosopher has to reach. He could hail any one he happened to pass in the street, begin an argument with him forthwith, and set a whole crowd thinking and inquiring about subjects the mere contemplation of which would raise them for the moment above matters of transient concern. For more than half a century any citizen might have gratis the benefit of oral instruction from such a man as he. And I sometimes think, by the way, that—curtailed as it is to literary proportions in the dialogues of Plato, bereft of all that personal potency which it had when it flowed, instinct with earnestness, from the lips of the teacher—even to this day the wit of man has perhaps devised no better general gymnastics for the understanding than the Sokratic dialectic. I am far from saying that all Athens listened to Sokrates or understood him: had it been so, the caricature of Aristophanes would have been pointless, and the sublime yet mournful trilogy of dialogues which pourtray the closing scenes of the greatest life of antiquity would never have been written. But the mere fact that such a man lived and taught in the way that he did goes far in proof of the deep culture of the Athenian public. Further confirmation is to be found in the fact that such tragedies as the Antigone, the Oidipous, and the Prometheus were written to suit the popular taste of the time; not to be read by literary people, or to be performed before select audiences such as in our day listen to Ristori or Janauschek, but to hold spell-bound that vast concourse of all kinds of people which assembled at the Dionysiac festivals.

Still further proof is furnished by the exquisite literary perfection of Greek writings. One of the common arguments in favour of the study of Greek at the present day is based upon the opinion that in the best works extant in that language the art of literary expression has reached wellnigh absolute perfection. I fully concur in this opinion, so far as to doubt if even the greatest modern writers, even a Pascal or a Voltaire, can fairly sustain a comparison with such Athenians as Plato or Lysias. This excellence of the ancient books is in part immediately due to the fact that they were not written in a hurry, or amid the anxieties of an over-busy existence; but it is in greater part due to the indirect consequences of a leisurely life. These books were written for a public which knew well how to appreciate the finer beauties of expression; and, what is still more to the point, their authors lived in a community where an elegant style was habitual. Before a matchless style can be written, there must be a good style “in the air,” as the French say. Probably the most finished talking and writing of modern times has been done in and about the French court in the seventeenth century; and it is accordingly there that we find men like Pascal and Bossuet writing a prose which for precision, purity, and dignity has never since been surpassed. It is thus that the unapproachable literary excellence of ancient Greek books speaks for the genuine culture of the people who were expected to read them, or to hear them read. For one of the surest indices of true culture, whether professedly literary or not, is the power to express one’s self in precise, rhythmical, and dignified language. We hardly need a better evidence than this of the superiority of the ancient community in the general elevation of its tastes and perceptions. Recollecting how Herodotos read his history at the Olympic games, let us try to imagine even so picturesque a writer as Mr. Parkman reading a few chapters of his “Jesuits in North America” before the spectators assembled at the Jerome Park races, and we shall the better realize how deep-seated was Hellenic culture.

As yet, however, I have referred to but one side of Athenian life. Though “seekers after wisdom,” the cultivated people of Athens did not spend all their valuable leisure in dialectics or in connoisseurship. They were not a set of dilettanti or dreamy philosophers, and they were far from subordinating the material side of life to the intellectual. Also, though they dealt not in money-making after the eager fashion of modern men, they had still concerns of immediate practical interest with which to busy themselves. Each one of these twenty-five thousand free Athenians was not only a free voter, but an office-holder, a legislator, a judge. They did not control the government through a representative body, but they were themselves the government. They were, one and all, in turn liable to be called upon to make laws, and to execute them after they were made, as well as to administer justice in civil and criminal suits. The affairs and interests, not only of their own city, but of a score or two of scattered dependencies, were more or less closely to be looked after by them. It lay with them to declare war, to carry it on after declaring it, and to pay the expenses of it. Actually and not by deputy they administered the government of their own city, both in its local and in its imperial relations. All this implies a more thorough, more constant, and more vital political training than that which is implied by the modern duties of casting a ballot and serving on a jury. The life of the Athenian was emphatically a political life. From early manhood onward, it was part of his duty to hear legal questions argued by powerful advocates, and to utter a decision upon law and fact; or to mix in debate upon questions of public policy, arguing, listening, and pondering. It is customary to compare the political talent of the Greeks unfavourably with that displayed by the Romans, and I have no wish to dispute this estimate. But on a careful study it will appear that the Athenians, at least, in a higher degree than any other community of ancient times, exhibited parliamentary tact, or the ability to sit still while both sides of a question are getting discussed,—that sort of political talent for which the English races are distinguished, and to the lack of which so many of the political failures of the French are egregiously due. One would suppose that a judicature of the whole town would be likely to execute a sorry parody of justice; yet justice was by no means ill-administered at Athens. Even the most unfortunate and disgraceful scenes,—as where the proposed massacre of the Mytilenaians was discussed, and where summary retribution was dealt out to the generals who had neglected their duty at Arginusai,—even these scenes furnish, when thoroughly examined, as by Mr. Grote, only the more convincing proof that the Athenian was usually swayed by sound reason and good sense to an extraordinary degree. All great points in fact, were settled rather by sober appeals to reason than by intrigue or lobbying; and one cannot help thinking that an Athenian of the time of Perikles would have regarded with pitying contempt the trick of the “previous question.” And this explains the undoubted pre-eminence of Athenian oratory. This accounts for the fact that we find in the forensic annals of a single city, and within the compass of a single century, such names as Lysias, Isokrates, Andokides, Hypereides, Aischines, and Demosthenes. The art of oratory, like the art of sculpture, shone forth more brilliantly then than ever since, because then the conditions favouring its development were more perfectly combined than they have since been. Now, a condition of society in which the multitude can always be made to stand quietly and listen to a logical discourse is a condition of high culture. Readers of Xenophon’s Anabasis will remember the frequency of the speeches in that charming book. Whenever some terrible emergency arose, or some alarming quarrel or disheartening panic occurred, in the course of the retreat of the Ten Thousand, an oration from one of the commanders—not a demagogue’s appeal to the lower passions, but a calm exposition of circumstances addressed to the sober judgment—usually sufficed to set all things in order. To my mind this is one of the most impressive historical lessons conveyed in Xenophon’s book. And this peculiar kind of self-control, indicative of intellectual sobriety and high moral training, which was more or less characteristic of all Greeks, was especially characteristic of the Athenians.

These illustrations will, I hope, suffice to show that there is nothing extravagant in the high estimate which I have made of Athenian culture. I have barely indicated the causes of this singular perfection of individual training in the social circumstances amid which the Athenians lived. I have alleged it as an instance of what may be accomplished by a well-directed leisure and in the absence or very scanty development of such a complex industrial life as that which surrounds us to-day. But I have not yet quite done with the Athenians. Before leaving this part of the subject, I must mention one further circumstance which tends to make ancient life appear in our eyes more sunny and healthy and less distressed, than the life of modern times. And in this instance, too, though we are not dealing with any immediate or remote effects of leisureliness, we still have to note the peculiar advantage gained by the absence of a great complexity of interests in the ancient community.

With respect to religion, the Athenians were peculiarly situated. They had for the most part outgrown the primitive terrorism of fetishistic belief. Save in cases of public distress, as in the mutilation of the Hermai, or in the refusal of Nikias to retreat from Syracuse because of an eclipse of the moon, they were no longer, like savages, afraid of the dark. Their keen aesthetic sense had prevailed to turn the horrors of a primeval nature-worship into beauties. Their springs and groves were peopled by their fancy with naiads and dryads, not with trolls and grotesque goblins. Their feelings toward the unseen powers at work about them were in the main pleasant; as witness the little story about Pheidippides meeting the god Pan as he was making with hot haste toward Sparta to announce the arrival of the Persians. Now, while this original source of mental discomfort, which afflicts the uncivilized man, had ceased materially to affect the Athenians, they on the other hand lived at a time when the vague sense of sin and self-reproof which was characteristic of the early ages of Christianity, had not yet invaded society. The vast complication of life brought about by the extension of the Roman Empire led to a great development of human sympathies, unknown in earlier times, and called forth unquiet yearnings, desire for amelioration, a sense of short-coming, and a morbid self-consciousness. It is accordingly under Roman sway that we first come across characters approximating to the modern type, like Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. It is then that we find the idea of social progress first clearly expressed, that we discover some glimmerings of a conscious philanthropy, and that we detect the earliest symptoms of that unhealthy tendency to subordinate too entirely the physical to the moral life, which reached its culmination in the Middle Ages. In the palmy days of the Athenians it was different. When we hint that they were not consciously philanthropists, we do not mean that they were not humane; when we accredit them with no idea of progress, we do not forget how much they did to render both the idea and the reality possible; when we say that they had not a distressing sense of spiritual unworthiness, we do not mean that they had no conscience. We mean that their moral and religious life sat easily on them, like their own graceful drapery,—did not gall and worry them, like the hair-cloth garment of the monk. They were free from that dark conception of a devil which lent terror to life in the Middle Ages; and the morbid self-consciousness which led mediaeval women to immure themselves in convents would have been to an Athenian quite inexplicable. They had, in short, an open and childlike conception of religion; and, as such, it was a sunny conception. Any one who will take the trouble to compare an idyl of Theokritos with a modern pastoral, or the poem of Kleanthes with a modern hymn, or the Aphrodite of Melos with a modern Madonna, will realize most effectually what I mean.

And, finally, the religion of the Athenians was in the main symbolized in a fluctuating mythology, and had never been hardened into dogmas. The Athenian was subject to no priest, nor was he obliged to pin his faith to any formulated creed. His hospitable polytheism left little room for theological persecution, and none for any heresy short of virtual atheism. The feverish doubts which rack the modern mind left him undisturbed. Though he might sink to any depth of scepticism in philosophy, yet the eternal welfare of his soul was not supposed to hang upon the issue of his doubts. Accordingly Athenian society was not only characterized in the main by freedom of opinion, in spite of the exceptional cases of Anaxagoras and Sokrates; but there was also none of that Gothic gloom with which the deep-seated Christian sense of infinite responsibility for opinion has saddened modern religious life.

In these reflections I have wandered a little way from my principal theme, in order more fully to show why the old Greek life impresses us as so cheerful. Returning now to the keynote with which we started, let us state succinctly the net result of what has been said about the Athenians. As a people we have seen that they enjoyed an unparalleled amount of leisure, living through life with but little turmoil and clatter. Their life was more spontaneous and unrestrained, less rigorously marked out by uncontrollable circumstances, than the life of moderns. They did not run so much in grooves. And along with this we have seen reason to believe that they were the most profoundly cultivated of all peoples; that a larger proportion of men lived complete, well-rounded, harmonious lives in ancient Athens than in any other known community. Keen, nimble-minded, and self-possessed; audacious speculators, but temperate and averse to extravagance; emotionally healthy, and endowed with an unequalled sense of beauty and propriety; how admirable and wonderful they seem when looked at across the gulf of ages intervening,—and what a priceless possession to humanity, of what noble augury for the distant future, is the fact that such a society has once existed!

The lesson to be drawn from the study of this antique life will impress itself more deeply upon us after we have briefly contemplated the striking contrast to it which is afforded by the phase of civilization amid which we live to-day. Ever since Greek civilization was merged in Roman imperialism, there has been a slowly growing tendency toward complexity of social life,—toward the widening of sympathies, the multiplying of interests, the increase of the number of things to be done. Through the later Middle Ages, after Roman civilization had absorbed and disciplined the incoming barbarism which had threatened to destroy it, there was a steadily increasing complication of society, a multiplication of the wants of life, and a consequent enhancement of the difficulty of self-maintenance. The ultimate causes of this phenomenon lie so far beneath the surface that they could be satisfactorily discussed only in a technical essay on the evolution of society. It will be enough for us here to observe that the great geographical discoveries of the sixteenth century and the somewhat later achievements of physical science have, during the past two hundred years, aided powerfully in determining the entrance of the Western world upon an industrial epoch,—an epoch which has for its final object the complete subjection of the powers of nature to purposes of individual comfort and happiness. We have now to trace some of the effects of this lately-begun industrial development upon social life and individual culture. And as we studied the leisureliness of antiquity where its effects were most conspicuous, in the city of Athens, we shall now do well to study the opposite characteristics of modern society where they are most conspicuously exemplified, in our own country. The attributes of American life which it will be necessary to signalize will be seen to be only the attributes of modern life in their most exaggerated phase.

To begin with, in studying the United States, we are no longer dealing with a single city, or with small groups of cities. The city as a political unit, in the antique sense, has never existed among us, and indeed can hardly be said now to exist anywhere. The modern city is hardly more than a great emporium of trade, or a place where large numbers of people find it convenient to live huddled together; not a sacred fatherland to which its inhabitants owe their highest allegiance, and by the requirements of which their political activity is limited. What strikes us here is that our modern life is diffused or spread out, not concentrated like the ancient civic life. If the Athenian had been the member of an integral community, comprising all peninsular Greece and the mainland of Asia Minor, he could not have taken life so easily as he did.

Now our country is not only a very large one, but compared to its vast territorial extent it contains a very small population. If we go on increasing at the present rate, so that a century hence we number four or five hundred millions, our country will be hardly more crowded than China is to-day. Or if our whole population were now to be brought east of Niagara Falls, and confined on the south by the Potomac, we should still have as much elbow-room as they have in France. Political economists can show the effects of this high ratio of land to inhabitants, in increasing wages, raising the interest of money, and stimulating production. We are thus living amid circumstances which are goading the industrial activity characteristic of the last two centuries, and notably of the English race, into an almost feverish energy. The vast extent of our unwrought territory is constantly draining fresh life from our older districts, to aid in the establishment of new frontier communities of a somewhat lower or less highly organized type. And these younger communities, daily springing up, are constantly striving to take on the higher structure,—to become as highly civilized and to enjoy as many of the prerogatives of civilization as the rest. All this calls forth an enormous quantity of activity, and causes American life to assume the aspect of a life-and-death struggle for mastery over the material forces of that part of the earth’s surface upon which it thrives.

It is thus that we are traversing what may properly be called the BARBAROUS epoch of our history,—the epoch at which the predominant intellectual activity is employed in achievements which are mainly of a material character. Military barbarism, or the inability of communities to live together without frequent warfare, has been nearly outgrown by the whole Western world. Private wars, long since made everywhere illegal, have nearly ceased; and public wars, once continual, have become infrequent. But industrial barbarism, by which I mean the inability of a community to direct a portion of its time to purposes of spiritual life, after providing for its physical maintenance,—this kind of barbarism the modern world has by no means outgrown. To-day, the great work of life is to live; while the amount of labour consumed in living has throughout the present century been rapidly increasing. Nearly the whole of this American community toils from youth to old age in merely procuring the means for satisfying the transient wants of life. Our time and energies, our spirit and buoyancy, are quite used up in what is called “getting on.”

Another point of difference between the structure of American and of Athenian society must not be left out of the account. The time has gone by in which the energies of a hundred thousand men and women could be employed in ministering to the individual perfection of twenty-five thousand. Slavery, in the antique sense,—an absolute command of brain as well as of muscle, a slave-system of skilled labour,—we have never had. In our day it is for each man to earn his own bread; so that the struggle for existence has become universal. The work of one class does not furnish leisure for another class. The exceptional circumstances which freed the Athenian from industrial barbarism, and enabled him to become the great teacher and model of culture for the human race, have disappeared forever.

Then the general standard of comfortable living, as already hinted, has been greatly raised, and is still rising. What would have satisfied the ancient would seem to us like penury. We have a domestic life of which the Greek knew nothing. We live during a large part of the year in the house. Our social life goes on under the roof. Our houses are not mere places for eating and sleeping, like the houses of the ancients. It therefore costs us a large amount of toil to get what is called shelter for our heads. The sum which a young married man, in “good society,” has to pay for his house and the furniture contained in it, would have enabled an Athenian to live in princely leisure from youth to old age. The sum which he has to pay out each year, to meet the complicated expense of living in such a house, would have more than sufficed to bring up an Athenian family. If worthy Strepsiades could have got an Asmodean glimpse of Fifth Avenue, or even of some unpretending street in Cambridge, he might have gone back to his aristocratic wife a sadder but a more contented man.

Wealth—or at least what would until lately have been called wealth—has become essential to comfort; while the opportunities for acquiring it have in recent times been immensely multiplied. To get money is, therefore, the chief end of life in our time and country. “Success in life” has become synonymous with “becoming wealthy.” A man who is successful in what he undertakes is a man who makes his employment pay him in money. Our normal type of character is that of the shrewd, circumspect business man; as in the Middle Ages it was that of the hardy warrior. And as in those days when fighting was a constant necessity, and when the only honourable way for a gentleman of high rank to make money was by freebooting, fighting came to be regarded as an end desirable in itself; so in these days the mere effort to accumulate has become a source of enjoyment rather than a means to it. The same truth is to be witnessed in aberrant types of character. The infatuated speculator and the close-fisted millionaire are our substitutes for the mediaeval berserkir,—the man who loved the pell-mell of a contest so well that he would make war on his neighbour, just to keep his hand in. In like manner, while such crimes as murder and violent robbery have diminished in frequency during the past century, on the other hand such crimes as embezzlement, gambling in stocks, adulteration of goods, and using of false weights and measures, have probably increased. If Dick Turpin were now to be brought back to life, he would find the New York Custom-House a more congenial and profitable working-place than the king’s highway.

The result of this universal quest for money is that we are always in a hurry. Our lives pass by in a whirl. It is all labour and no fruition. We work till we are weary; we carry our work home with us; it haunts our evenings, and disturbs our sleep as well as our digestion. Our minds are so burdened with it that our conversation, when serious, can dwell upon little else. If we step into a railway-car, or the smoking-room of a hotel, or any other place where a dozen or two of men are gathered together, we shall hear them talking of stocks, of investments, of commercial paper, as if there were really nothing in this universe worth thinking of, save only the interchange of dollars and commodities. So constant and unremitted is our forced application, that our minds are dwarfed for everything except the prosecution of the one universal pursuit.

Are we now prepared for the completing of the contrast? Must we say that, as Athens was the most leisurely and the United States is the most hurried community known in history, so the Americans are, as a consequence of their hurry, lacking in thoroughness of culture? Or, since it is difficult to bring our modern culture directly into contrast with that of an ancient community, let me state the case after a different but equivalent fashion. Since the United States present only an exaggerated type of the modern industrial community, since the turmoil of incessant money-getting, which affects all modern communities in large measure, affects us most seriously of all, shall it be said that we are, on the whole, less highly cultivated than our contemporaries in Western Europe? To a certain extent we must confess that this is the case. In the higher culture—in the culture of the whole man, according to the antique idea—we are undoubtedly behind all other nations with which it would be fair to compare ourselves. It will not do to decide a question like this merely by counting literary celebrities, although even thus we should by no means get a verdict in our favour. Since the beginning of this century, England has produced as many great writers and thinkers as France or Germany; yet the general status of culture in England is said—perhaps with truth—to be lower than it is in these countries. It is said that the average Englishman is less ready than the average German or Frenchman to sympathize with ideas which have no obvious market-value. Yet in England there is an amount of high culture among those not professionally scholars, which it would be vain to seek among ourselves. The purposes of my argument, however, require that the comparison should be made between our own country and Western Europe in general. Compare, then, our best magazines—not solely with regard to their intrinsic excellence, but also with regard to the way in which they are sustained—with the Revue des Deux Mondes or the Journal des Debats. Or compare our leading politicians with men like Gladstone, Disraeli, or Sir G. C. Lewis; or even with such men as Brougham or Thiers. Or compare the slovenly style of our newspaper articles, I will not say with the exquisite prose of the lamented Prevost-Paradol, but with the ordinary prose of the French or English newspaper. But a far better illustration—for it goes down to the root of things—is suggested by the recent work of Matthew Arnold on the schools of the continent of Europe. The country of our time where the general culture is unquestionably the highest is Prussia. Now, in Prussia, they are able to have a Minister of Education, who is a member of the Cabinet. They are sure that this minister will not appoint or remove even an assistant professor for political reasons. Only once, as Arnold tells us, has such a thing been done; and then public opinion expressed itself in such an emphatic tone of disapproval that the displaced teacher was instantly appointed to another position. Nothing of this sort, says Arnold, could have occurred in England; but still less could it occur in America. Had we such an educational system, there would presently be an “Education Ring” to control it. Nor can this difference be ascribed to the less eager political activity of Germany. The Prussian state of things would have been possible in ancient Athens, where political life was as absorbing and nearly as turbulent as in the United States. The difference is due to our lack of faith in culture, a lack of faith in that of which we have not had adequate experience.

We lack culture because we live in a hurry, and because our attention is given up to pursuits which call into activity and develop but one side of us. On the one hand contemplate Sokrates quietly entertaining a crowd in the Athenian market-place, and on the other hand consider Broadway with its eternal clatter, and its throngs of hurrying people elbowing and treading on each other’s heels, and you will get a lively notion of the difference between the extreme phases of ancient and modern life. By the time we have thus rushed through our day, we have no strength left to devote to things spiritual. To-day finds us no nearer fruition than yesterday. And if perhaps the time at last arrives when fruition is practicable, our minds have run so long in the ruts that they cannot be twisted out.

As it is impossible for any person living in a given state of society to keep himself exempt from its influences, detrimental as well as beneficial, we find that even those who strive to make a literary occupation subservient to purposes of culture are not, save in rare cases, spared by the general turmoil. Those who have at once the ability, the taste, and the wealth needful for training themselves to the accomplishment of some many-sided and permanent work are of course very few. Nor have our universities yet provided themselves with the means for securing to literary talent the leisure which is essential to complete mental development, or to a high order of productiveness. Although in most industrial enterprises we know how to work together so successfully, in literature we have as yet no co-operation. We have not only no Paris, but we have not even a Tubingen, a Leipsic, or a Jena, or anything corresponding to the fellowships in the English universities. Our literary workers have no choice but to fall into the ranks, and make merchandise of their half-formed ideas. They must work without co-operation, they must write in a hurry, and they must write for those who have no leisure for aught but hasty and superficial reading.

Bursting boilers and custom-house frauds may have at first sight nothing to do with each other or with my subject. It is indisputable, however, that the horrible massacres perpetrated every few weeks or mouths by our common carriers, and the disgraceful peculation in which we allow our public servants to indulge with hardly ever an effective word of protest, are alike to be ascribed to the same causes which interfere with our higher culture. It is by no means a mere accidental coincidence that for every dollar stolen by government officials in Prussia, at least fifty or a hundred are stolen in the United States. This does not show that the Germans are our superiors in average honesty, but it shows that they are our superiors in thoroughness. It is with them an imperative demand that any official whatever shall be qualified for his post; a principle of public economy which in our country is not simply ignored in practice, but often openly laughed at. But in a country where high intelligence and thorough training are imperatively demanded, it follows of necessity that these qualifications must insure for their possessors a permanent career in which the temptations to malfeasance or dishonesty are reduced to the minimum. On the other hand, in a country where intelligence and training have no surety that they are to carry the day against stupidity and inefficiency, the incentives to dishonourable conduct are overpowering. The result in our own political life is that the best men are driven in disgust from politics, and thus one of the noblest fields for the culture of the whole man is given over to be worked by swindlers and charlatans. To an Athenian such a severance of the highest culture from political life would have been utterly inconceivable. Obviously the deepest explanation of all this lies in our lack of belief in the necessity for high and thorough training. We do not value culture enough to keep it in our employ or to pay it for its services; and what is this short-sighted negligence but the outcome of the universal shiftlessness begotten of the habit of doing everything in a hurry? On every hand we may see the fruits of this shiftlessness, from buildings that tumble in, switches that are misplaced, furnaces that are ill-protected, fire-brigades that are without discipline, up to unauthorized meddlings with the currency, and revenue laws which defeat their own purpose.

I said above that the attributes of American life which we should find it necessary for our purpose to signalize are simply the attributes of modern life in their most exaggerated phase. Is there not a certain sense in which all modern handiwork is hastily and imperfectly done? To begin with common household arts, does not every one know that old things are more durable than new things? Our grandfathers wore better shoes than we wear, because there was leisure enough to cure the leather properly. In old times a chair was made of seasoned wood, and its joints carefully fitted; its maker had leisure to see that it was well put together. Now a thousand are turned off at once by machinery, out of green wood, and, with their backs glued on, are hurried off to their evil fate,—destined to drop in pieces if they happen to stand near the fireplace, and liable to collapse under the weight of a heavy man. Some of us still preserve, as heirlooms, old tables and bedsteads of Cromwellian times: in the twenty-first century what will have become of our machine-made bedsteads and tables?

Perhaps it may seem odd to talk about tanning and joinery in connection with culture, but indeed there is a subtle bond of union holding together all these things. Any phase of life can be understood only by associating with it some different phase. Sokrates himself has taught us how the homely things illustrate the grand things. If we turn to the art of musical composition and inquire into some of the differences between our recent music and that of Handel’s time, we shall alight upon the very criticism which Mr. Mill somewhere makes in comparing ancient with modern literature: the substance has improved, but the form has in some respects deteriorated. The modern music expresses the results of a richer and more varied emotional experience, and in wealth of harmonic resources, to say nothing of increased skill in orchestration, it is notably superior to the old music. Along with this advance, however, there is a perceptible falling off in symmetry and completeness of design, and in what I would call spontaneousness of composition. I believe that this is because modern composers, as a rule, do not drudge patiently enough upon counterpoint. They do not get that absolute mastery over technical difficulties of figuration which was the great secret of the incredible facility and spontaneity of composition displayed by Handel and Bach. Among recent musicians Mendelssohn is the most thoroughly disciplined in the elements of counterpoint; and it is this perfect mastery of the technique of his art which has enabled him to outrank Schubert and Schumann, neither of whom would one venture to pronounce inferior to him in native wealth of musical ideas. May we not partly attribute to rudimentary deficiency in counterpoint the irregularity of structure which so often disfigures the works of the great Wagner and the lesser Liszt, and which the more ardent admirers of these composers are inclined to regard as a symptom of progress?

I am told that a similar illustration might be drawn from the modern history of painting; that, however noble the conceptions of the great painters of the present century, there are none who have gained such a complete mastery over the technicalities of drawing and the handling of the brush as was required in the times of Raphael, Titian, and Rubens. But on this point I can only speak from hearsay, and am quite willing to end here my series of illustrations, fearing that I may already have been wrongly set down as a lavulator temporis acti. Not the idle praising of times gone by, but the getting a lesson from them which may be of use to us, has been my object. And I believe enough has been said to show that the great complexity of modern life, with its multiplicity of demands upon our energy, has got us into a state of chronic hurry, the results of which are everywhere to be seen in the shape of less thorough workmanship and less rounded culture.

For one moment let me stop to note a further source of the relative imperfection of modern culture, which is best illustrated in the case of literature. I allude to the immense, unorganized mass of literature in all departments, representing the accumulated acquisitions of past ages, which must form the basis of our own achievement, but with which our present methods of education seem inadequate to deal properly. Speaking roughly, modern literature may be said to be getting into the state which Roman jurisprudence was in before it was reformed by Justinian. Philosophic criticism has not yet reached the point at which it may serve as a natural codifier. We must read laboriously and expend a disproportionate amount of time and pains in winnowing the chaff from the wheat. This tends to make us “digs” or literary drudges; but I doubt if the “dig” is a thoroughly developed man. Goethe, with all his boundless knowledge, his universal curiosity, and his admirable capacity for work, was not a “dig.” But this matter can only be hinted at: it is too large to be well discussed at the fag end of an essay while other points are pressing for consideration.

A state of chronic hurry not only directly hinders the performance of thorough work, but it has an indirect tendency to blunt the enjoyment of life. Let us consider for a moment one of the psychological consequences entailed by the strain of a too complex and rapid activity. Every one must have observed that in going off for a vacation of two or three weeks, or in getting freed in any way from the ruts of every-day life, time slackens its gait somewhat, and the events which occur are apt a few years later to cover a disproportionately large area in our recollections. This is because the human organism is a natural timepiece in which the ticks are conscious sensations. The greater the number of sensations which occupy the foreground of consciousness during the day, the longer the day seems in the retrospect. But the various groups of sensations which accompany our daily work tend to become automatic from continual repetition, and to sink into the background of consciousness; and in a very complex and busied life the number of sensations or states of consciousness which can struggle up to the front and get attended to, is comparatively small It is thus that the days seem so short when we are busy about every-day matters, and that they get blurred together, and as it were individually annihilated in recollection. When we travel, a comparatively large number of fresh sensations occupy attention, there is a maximum of consciousness, and a distinct image is left to loom up in memory. For the same reason the weeks and years are much longer to the child than to the grown man. The life is simpler and less hurried, so that there is time to attend to a great many sensations. Now this fact lies at the bottom of that keen enjoyment of existence which is the prerogative of childhood and early youth. The day is not rushed through by the automatic discharge of certain psychical functions, but each sensation stays long enough to make itself recognized. Now when once we understand the psychology of this matter, it becomes evident that the same contrast that holds between the child and the man must hold also between the ancient and the modern. The number of elements entering into ancient life were so few relatively, that there must have been far more than there is now of that intense realization of life which we can observe in children and remember of our own childhood. Space permitting, it would be easy to show from Greek literature how intense was this realization of life. But my point will already have been sufficiently apprehended. Already we cannot fail to see how difficult it is to get more than a minimum of conscious fruition out of a too complex and rapid activity.

One other point is worth noticing before we close. How is this turmoil of modern existence impressing itself upon the physical constitutions of modern men and women? When an individual man engages in furious productive activity, his friends warn him that he will break down. Does the collective man of our time need some such friendly warning? Let us first get a hint from what foreigners think of us ultra-modernized Americans. Wandering journalists, of an ethnological turn of mind, who visit these shores, profess to be struck with the slenderness, the apparent lack of toughness, the dyspeptic look, of the American physique. And from such observations it has been seriously argued that the stalwart English race is suffering inevitable degeneracy in this foreign climate. I have even seen it doubted whether a race of men can ever become thoroughly naturalized in a locality to which it is not indigenous. To such vagaries it is a sufficient answer that the English are no more indigenous to England than to America. They are indigenous to Central Asia, and as they have survived the first transplantation, they may be safely counted on to survive the second. A more careful survey will teach us that the slow alteration of physique which is going on in this country is only an exaggeration of that which modern civilization is tending to bring about everywhere. It is caused by the premature and excessive strain upon the mental powers requisite to meet the emergencies of our complex life. The progress of events has thrown the work of sustaining life so largely upon the brain that we are beginning to sacrifice the physical to the intellectual. We are growing spirituelle in appearance at the expense of robustness. Compare any typical Greek face, with its firm muscles, its symmetry of feature, and its serenity of expression, to a typical modern portrait, with its more delicate contour, its exaggerated forehead, its thoughtful, perhaps jaded look. Or consider in what respects the grand faces of the Plantagenet monarchs differ from the refined countenances of the leading English statesmen of to-day. Or again, consider the familiar pictures of the Oxford and Harvard crews which rowed a race on the Thames in 1869, and observe how much less youthful are the faces of the Americans. By contrast they almost look careworn. The summing up of countless such facts is that modern civilization is making us nervous. Our most formidable diseases are of nervous origin. We seem to have got rid of the mediaeval plague and many of its typhoid congeners; but instead we have an increased amount of insanity, methomania, consumption, dyspepsia, and paralysis. In this fact it is plainly written that we are suffering physically from the over-work and over-excitement entailed by excessive hurry.

In view of these various but nearly related points of difference between ancient and modern life as studied in their extreme manifestations, it cannot be denied that while we have gained much, we have also lost a good deal that is valuable, in our progress. We cannot but suspect that we are not in all points more highly favoured than the ancients. And it becomes probable that Athens, at all events, which I have chosen as my example, may have exhibited an adumbration of a state of things which, for the world at large, is still in the future,—still to be remotely hoped for. The rich complexity of modern social achievement is attained at the cost of individual many-sidedness. As Tennyson puts it, “The individual withers and the world is more and more." Yet the individual does not exist for the sake of society, as the positivists would have us believe, but society exists for the sake of the individual. And the test of complete social life is the opportunity which it affords for complete individual life. Tried by this test, our contemporary civilization will appear seriously defective,—excellent only as a preparation for something better.

This is the true light in which to regard it. This incessant turmoil, this rage for accumulation of wealth, this crowding, jostling, and trampling upon one another, cannot be regarded as permanent, or as anything more than the accompaniment of a transitional stage of civilization. There must be a limit to the extent to which the standard of comfortable living can be raised. The industrial organization of society, which is now but beginning, must culminate in a state of things in which the means of expense will exceed the demand for expense, in which the human race will have some surplus capital. The incessant manual labour which the ancients relegated to slaves will in course of time be more and more largely performed by inanimate machinery. Unskilled labour will for the most part disappear. Skilled labour will consist in the guiding of implements contrived with versatile cunning for the relief of human nerve and muscle. Ultimately there will be no unsettled land to fill, no frontier life, no savage races to be assimilated or extirpated, no extensive migration. Thus life will again become comparatively stationary. The chances for making great fortunes quickly will be diminished, while the facilities for acquiring a competence by steady labour will be increased. When every one is able to reach the normal standard of comfortable living, we must suppose that the exaggerated appetite for wealth and display will gradually disappear. We shall be more easily satisfied, and thus enjoy more leisure. It may be that there will ultimately exist, over the civilized world, conditions as favourable to the complete fruition of life as those which formerly existed within the narrow circuit of Attika; save that the part once played by enslaved human brain and muscle will finally be played by the enslaved forces of insentient nature. Society will at last bear the test of providing for the complete development of its individual members.

So, at least, we may hope; such is the probability which the progress of events, when carefully questioned, sketches out for us. “Need we fear,” asks Mr. Greg, “that the world would stagnate under such a change? Need we guard ourselves against the misconstruction of being held to recommend a life of complacent and inglorious inaction? We think not. We would only substitute a nobler for a meaner strife,—a rational for an excessive toil,—an enjoyment that springs from serenity, for one that springs from excitement only. . . . . To each time its own preacher, to each excess its own counteraction. In an age of dissipation, languor, and stagnation, we should join with Mr. Carlyle in preaching the ’Evangel of Work,’ and say with him, ’Blessed is the man who has found his work,—let him ask no other blessedness.’ In an age of strenuous, frenzied, .... and often utterly irrational and objectless exertion, we join Mr. Mill in preaching the milder and more needed ’Evangel of Leisure.’ “

Bearing all these things in mind, we may understand the remark of the supremely cultivated Goethe, when asked who were his masters: Die Griechen, die Griechen, und immer die Griechen. We may appreciate the significance of Mr. Mill’s argument in favour of the study of antiquity, that it preserves the tradition of an era of individual completeness. There is a disposition growing among us to remodel our methods of education in conformity with the temporary requirements of the age in which we live. In this endeavour there is much that is wise and practical; but in so far as it tends to the neglect of antiquity, I cannot think it well-timed. Our education should not only enhance the value of what we possess; is should also supply the consciousness of what we lack. And while, for generations to come, we pass toilfully through an era of exorbitant industrialism, some fragment of our time will not be misspent in keeping alive the tradition of a state of things which was once briefly enjoyed by a little community, but which, in the distant future, will, as it is hoped, become the permanent possession of all mankind.

  January, 1873.



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