The Path – September 1889


In the famous speech of Ulysses in the third act of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida occurs the often-quoted line, "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." It is a curious fact, and one on the whole redounding to the credit of humanity, that the line is never quoted in the sense in which Ulysses uses it. He is speaking of the readiness of mankind to forget past benefits, and to prize the glitter of a specious present rather than the true gold of that which has gone by. "The present eye praises the present object," says the wise old Greek, and there is one touch of nature that makes the whole world kin, that is, men's fondness for praising that which is new, though it be gilded dust, rather than that which is ancient, though it be gold that is somewhat dusty. "Then marvel not," he says to Achilles, "that all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax."

Curiously enough, the line is always quoted as exemplifying the sympathy that, once awakened, makes men feel their close relationship to each other. (1) "Nature" is taken as meaning fellow-feeling, one touch of which makes us all brothers. This unconscious misinterpretation, or rather misapplication, of the great poet's words shows us how innate the conviction is of the fact of our universal brotherhood.

We recognise it as our nature, and one throb of fellow-feeling brings the truth home to our awakened consciousness. The touch of sympathy, like the spear of Ithuriel, instantly dispels the illusion of the senses; it lifts us from the purely terrestrial plane, the life of every day, with its apparent gulfs and abysses of worldly circumstance set between soul and soul, to that higher region where we see the non-reality of these separations; where we feel, in all those moments that call out the deeper nature of every human being, that the one great pulse of the universe throbs through all our veins. An intellectual conviction of the necessary identity of spirit will never go half so far towards convincing us of the reality of universal brotherhood, as the sudden flush of enthusiasm that follows the words of some great orator, the thrill with which we hear of some noble action, the grief with which we witness another's pain. We read in Light on the Path "Kill out all sense of separateness," because "Nothing that is embodied, nothing that is conscious of separation, nothing that is out of the eternal, can aid you." We may endeavor to realize this truth with all the mental power we can bring to bear upon it, meditate upon it for hours, and the sudden swaying of a crowd by some one mighty impulse, or the unexpected revelation of the depths of some human heart, will bring it home to us with a force that makes our intellectual conviction seem a pale and shadowy thing. There was a great spiritual truth in the old myth of the giant Antaeus, who regained his strength whenever he touched his mother Earth. To sway the souls of men the poet must fall back upon our common humanity, must make men feel that he is one with them, must give voice to the inarticulate cry of the masses, must speak from the people and not to the people. It is this working from a common basis, this appeal from one man to his comrades, that makes the inspiration of Walt Whitman's poetry so great and so far-reaching, the intense conviction, in short, of universal brotherhood, that makes him say, in his Leaves of Grass:

     "Recorders, ages hence!
     I will tell you what to say of me;
     Publish my name and hang up my picture as that of the tenderest lover, who was not proud of his songs, but of the measureless ocean of love within him — and freely poured it forth;" and who wrote to "Him who was crucified:"
     We all labor together, transmitting the same charge and succession;
     We few, equals, indifferent of lands, indifferent of times;
     We, inclosers of all continents, all castes — allowers of all theologies:
     We walk silent among disputes and assertions, but reject not the disputers nor anything that is asserted;
     We hear the bawling and din — we are reached at by divisions, jealousies, recriminations on every side,
     They close peremptorily upon us to surround us, my comrade,
     Yet we walk unheld, free, the whole earth over, journeying up and down, till we make our ineffaceable mark upon time and the diverse eras,
     Till we saturate time and eras, that the men and women of races, ages to come, may prove brethren and lovers, as we are."

And here the great poet strikes the same note touched upon by our President the last time he spoke to us. Because the realization of this dream of universal brotherhood must needs be a thing of the future, because we see how far from this true concentration we are, and must be for many centuries to come, perhaps, therefore there is this need that we should "saturate time and eras," as Walt Whitman puts it, that we should "make our ineffaceable mark" upon the age. For this we come together in societies, that each may have his modicum of power reinforced by contact with others; that the reviving breath of another's inspiration may quicken the flame in our own hearts; that the individual atoms, by their union and common intensity of purpose, shall make up the little mass of leaven that shall one day leaven the whole lump.

But, as was said in one of the papers the other evening, a society can only accomplish what its individual members will and carry out, and to inspire us to this individual effort I know of nothing more effective than the words of "the good gray poet," among others, these —

     "Is reform needed? Is it through you?
     The greater the reform needed, the greater the personality you need to accomplish it.
     Do you not see how it would serve to have such a Body and Soul that when you enter the crowd, an atmosphere of desire and command enters with you, and every one is impressed with your personality?
     Whoever you are! claim your own at any hazard!
     These shows of the east and west are tame compared to you;
     These immense meadows, these interminable rivers, — you are immense and interminable as they;
     These furies, elements, storms, motions of Nature, throes of apparent dissolution, — you are he or she who is master or mistress over them,
     Master or mistress in your own right over Nature, elements, pain, passion, dissolution."

1. Shakespeare wrote: "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." We read instead: "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." (return to text)

The Path