All human progress is in circles, and never directly in straight lines. Such is the course of events, the order of the seasons, the career of the stars in the sky. After all advancing there is an apparent going backward; all growth has its periods of retardation, all ascent its descendings likewise. We find this abundantly confirmed by example in the brief space of human activity of which we have been able to obtain historic records. Where it has been imagined otherwise, we can find it only apparently so. Where there is evolution and manifestation, there has always been a prolific seed to set the development in motion. The fragrant Nymphaea, the creamy pond-lily, or the sacred lotus, may have sordid mud for its birthplace and maintenance, but it began with a rudimentary plant. The like is always engendered from its like.
We may be content, therefore, to contemplate ourselves as having a human ancestry all the way to remote ages. We are perfectly safe in relegating the simian races to their own, with the assurance of the Creed — "as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end." The origin of human beings may be counted as from the source to which their nobler aspirations tend. The oak and the pine grow toward the sky, because the effort is instinctive in the seed. We have good reason to presume as much in regard to ourselves. In regard, however, to conjectures about dates and periods we do not care to speculate. The point in the past is yet to be found at which a memorial of human beginnings may be set. Indeed, it is a matter entirely beyond our power of thinking. We do well to rest content with deducing what we may from the facts at our hand, and from the intuitions with which we are endowed. There is innate in us all a desire and aptitude to learn what is beyond the scope of our present knowing. Our animal wants come first, and are peremptory, but the gratifying of them does not set us free from unrest. We are conscious that we are something else than brute animals, and it is manifest in the passion to know, and possess. The infant child will cry for the moon, explore the flame of the candle with his fingers, and pull the doll to pieces in order to find out the mystery of its construction. He even becomes curious about existence. I have heard a child that had attained to vocal speech discourse extensively and as from actual memory, of his residence and employments in the years before he was born. When, likewise, the phenomenon of dying is beheld, children become inquisitive about it, eager to know what has actually occurred, whether it is all or there is still living and being in some mode and form not plain to them. They are not willing to admit that the person is no more.
In this eager passion for more perfect knowing, and in these curious conjectures, are manifested the instinct of that life which is beyond time, and scintillations of the grander truth. The mind seems to exhibit the reflection of some concept, some memory of the Aforetime, and to have caught with it as by refraction from the other direction, an impression of the life continuing. From views like these the poet Wordsworth was prompted to write his memorable verse: "Heaven hangs about us in our infancy."
There has been in every people having as such a worship and literature, the memory or conception of a primitive period of felicity. "The races of men were wont to live as gods," says Hesiod. "Their life was devoid of care, labor and trouble; no wretched old age hung imminent over them, but with hands and feet always vigorous as in youth they enjoyed themselves without any illness, and when at last they died it was as though they had been overcome by sleep. They are now benignant demons hovering about the earth, and guardian spirits over human beings."
In the Aryan records of India are similar traditions of the Hiranya or Golden Age of righteousness, in which was no labor or sorrow, no priests or sacrifices, and but one God and one Veda. The Yasna, or Book of Worship of the Par-sis, also describes the happy reign of Yima, in which there was neither cold nor heat, neither decay nor wasting disease, nor malice inspired by the devas; (1) father and son walked forth each like the other in the freshness of fifteen years. "Men enjoyed the greatest bliss in the Garden which Yima made."
Akin to this legend is that of the Garden or Park of Eden depicted in the Book of the Genesis in Hebrew story, copied apparently from that of the Grove or Park of the Gods in Babylonia. We may perceive a striking resemblance in the outcome. The serpent came; Yima beginning to desire the wrong, the celestial light withdrew. Long ages of evil followed, ages of silver and copper and iron, full of trial and calamity. Yet the Divine One has by no means wholly abandoned the children of the Earth. Here and there along the succession of ages, the "kingly majesty," or radiance unites itself with heroic men and gifted sages, till the circuit shall be completed. "That which hath been is that which shall be", and not absolutely new. The Golden Age, the Treta Yug, that preceded all, comes again as the cycle returns upon itself. "Now comes again the Virgin Astraea, the Divine Justice," sings the poet Vergil; "the reign of Saturn returns, and there is now sent down a new-born child from on high." The "kingly splendor," the light of the ages, now attaches itself to the new prophet Sosianto, the greatest of the sages and to all who are with him, in order to accomplish the restoration of all things. "The world wall now continue in a state of righteousness; the powers of evil will disappear and all its seed pass away." (Zamyad Yasht.)
A very similar culmination is set forth by early Christian teachers. It is related that the Apostle Paul was brought before the court of the Areopagos at Athens, by several Stoic and Epikurean philosophers, to explain certain of his doctrines which they accounted strange and alien. He protested that he was simply describing a Divinity whom they were worshipping without due intelligence of his character. He is the Creator and Disposer of all things, the apostle declared; and does not dwell in temples or depend upon offerings from his worshippers. Nor, is he far from any one of us, for in him we live and move and are, as several of the poets have affirmed: "We likewise are children of God." The former want of intelligence, however, is not regarded, but now a superior way of life and truth (2) is announced to all mankind everywhere: inasmuch as he has set a day or period in which the habitable earth will be ruled with justice and the Right hold sway thereafter.
This expectation has been a significant feature in subsequent history. It was not confined to any single religion. Not only was it general in the Eastern world, but it was also current in the new Continent of the West. The natives of Mexico greeted the coming of Cortes as the promised return of the "Fair God," Quetzalcohuatl, which would be followed by the establishment of a new reign of peace. The Mayas of Yucatan exhibited a similar confidence. These illusions were speedily dispelled when the Spaniards began to manifest their insatiable rapacity and merciless cruelty, but the belief is still cherished in many parts of that country that Motzuma himself, who was in some unknown way, adopted in place of the other, as the primitive hero of the people, is now living in a celestial abode, and will yet come and restore the Golden Era. The Peruvians had also a tradition that Viracocha will come from the region of the Dawn and set up his kingdom. Other cities and tribes have similar beliefs.
Christianity began with a like conception of a happier era for mankind. The epistles of the Apostle Paul mention it as an event near at hand, and even in the Evangelic writings are many sentences affirming the same thing. The prediction is recorded in them that "this gospel of the reign of heaven shall be proclaimed in the whole world for a testimony to all the various nations, and then the end will come." The Apostle supplements this by the emphatic statement that it had been proclaimed in all the created world beneath the sky, and thus gives his sanction to the general expectation. The unknown author of the Apocalypse seems to have been somewhat less catholic than Paul and covertly denounces him. He sets forth the concept of a new Jerusalem, which he describes as the holy city, complete in every respect, with the names of the tribes of Israel inscribed on its foundations and of twelve apostles on its gates, descending out of the sky from God, and illuminating the Gentile nations with its light.
The beatific vision failed of being realized but the expectation remained all through the Middle Ages as an important element of Christian doctrine. At the beginning of the Tenth Century this appeared in conspicuous form. This was a period of calamity almost unparalleled, war unceasing, years of famine, frequent earthquakes, and pestilence rapidly supervening upon pestilence, as though the human race was doomed.
The belief was general throughout Europe that the present order of the world was about to be dissolved. The augurs of ancient Etruria had predicted that the time of national existence for their country would be a thousand years and it had been verified. The duration of Christendom it was supposed would be for a like period. The coming judgment was at once the hope and the terror of that time. Under this conviction the Crusades and wars of extermination against heretics and unconverted peoples were undertaken in rapid succession. The Pontiff at Rome claimed divine authority over the nations. The Emperor of Germany followed by assuming to be Prince of the Holy Empire to whom all kings and rulers owed allegiance, and the attempt was made by force of arms to plant peace perpetually in the world. Frederick Barbarossa perished in a crusade, but his faithful people continued for hundreds of years firm in their belief that he was only sleeping in the tomb, and would yet awake to realize the hope of the nations.
In these days of repression and violence it did not seem possible to divest men's minds of the persuasion that the expected reign of justice would be a dominion of external state and magnificence, and to show them instead that it was to be a brotherhood of charity, in which the pure thought, pure word and pure deed are prominent.
Yet several writers in the New Testament appear to have declared this very distinctly. Paul affirms that the reign of God consists in justice, peace and joyfulness in a holy spirit. It is also recorded that Jesus himself described it as not of this world to be supported by war and violence, or to make its advent with external manifestation, "Lo, the reign of heaven is within you" — such is the explicit statement. But men looked for the star, not in the sky over their heads, but rather in the pools that were beneath.
Some juster conception, however, was possessed by clear-seeing Mystics who flourished during the Middle Ages. There were gifted men, devoted to the profounder knowledge, who sought to escape persecution by the use of a secret speech with a covert meaning intelligible only to one another. Perhaps they were a fraternity like other sodalities. Some thought them illuminated from above; others, that they were dabbling in forbidden arts. What was not easily understood was accounted as magic. When the Renaissance came, the dense cloud began to dissipate, and men began to apprehend more clearly. The early Reformers had some distincter perception, but the obscurity was still too dense for open vision.
And thus the centuries passed.
It is said to be darkest just before daylight. This figure is employed to indicate the woeful period that often precedes a happier one. The Sixteenth Century was characterized by crime and calamity. From that time has been a steady bettering. It was as the slow coming of morning. There were no changes to be considered marvellous, no miracles except as every event about us, if we might but see more deeply, is a miracle. There was, however, a gradual unfolding of higher principles of action, and a broadening dissemination of knowledge. For those whose eyes were open there was much to be descried; and those who had ears to hear caught the sounds of the harbingers of the new day. Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish Illuminate, looking into heaven like the Martyr Stephen, beheld it opening to reveal the winding up of the former order of things, and the evolution of the new. We may interpret him as we are best able, but the intrinsic verity of his revelation may not be denied.
The world of thought is enlarging itself as never before during the historic period. There is no Holy Office or Star Chamber with its tortures to repress and punish dissenting beliefs. There is greater freedom in regard to religious faith, and a wholesome increasing independence of formal creeds and dominating teachers. Yet while perhaps drifting more widely apart in speculative opinion, there is evidently an approximating to a closer unity of sentiment and a higher standard of duty.
We are nearing the end of the period when conquest, slaughter and rapine are honored as glorious war. There is a public opinion maturing among the "plain people" that all controversies can be determined justly without such recourse. In this the self-interest of the selfish and the conscience of the conscientious concur as one. The reign of God is the reign of justice, and the reign of justice is the reign of peace. Nevertheless, we may not expect any speedy developing of Eutopia, or an ideal commonwealth of nations. There is an infinitude of preparation necessary, not merely in teaching, but in doing. The mills of the gods grind slowly, and there are hundreds of millions that people the earth that are not in condition to realize a very hopeful development. They require other discipline than that described by the Zulu chief: "First a missionary, then a consul, and then an army." The century that is about to open has in store for us, we trust, better things than have marked the long array of ages in the historic past.
It is not enough that scientific learning is widely extended, and mechanic arts developed to greater perfection. Civilization, properly understood, means something more vital and essential. It embraces life as a whole, a knowing how to live. In it the strong uphold the weak, the greatest serve the humblest, the wisest are those who dispense the most benefits. It implies a moral development, aiming to realize a perfect society.
The century now about to close, despite its shortcomings, made a long advance in that direction. In many respects it has also retrograded toward the former estate, both in ethics and legislation; but the Twentieth Century taking up its work will doubtless set out anew toward the ideal civilization.
1. Deva, which in Sanskrit signifies a divine being, here means a devil. The ancient schism between the two great Aryan peoples is indicated in these conflicting; definitions of characteristic words. Thus Yima, who is described in the Avesta as the ruler set by Ahurmazda over living men in the Garden of Bliss, is changed in India into Yama, the first man and sovereign in the region of the dead. There are many other of these counterparts. (return to text)
2. Greek, μετανσειν, metanoein. This term is translated "to repent," in the authorized version of the New Testament, but I have taken the liberty to render it as a noun, by the phrase here given, considering it as meaning etymologically, to go forward to a higher moral altitude, or plane of thought. (return to text)
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