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to-day called to contemplate. One wearies of vague boasts of the “progress of the age ” and platitudes upon “the spirit of the times.” But there are certain marked characteristics of our present civilization that require to be earnestly pondered and understood.
1. We live in a time of universal agitation. It is a movement all along the line. Its striking aspect is its all-embracing drift. Limited agitations are common enough. There is always a thought crisis of some kind. Each generation solves some problem. Questionings ever rise. Doubtings never cease.
But in other ages they have been kept within limits. If wholesome, they have been sporadic; if dangerous, shut up in private walks or heralded by the yellow flag. Now they are all abroad. The vast external changes and the revolutionary discoveries precedent or attendant have set the world afloat. It is like the breaking up of a northern icefield in a storm-wind, where the long crack opens a sudden chasm just before, then another and another right and left, and the iceplates grind and break in fragments, till all around seems but a mass of floating hummocks, undulating and trembling and tumbling in the unstable surf.
It was not so once. There was seeming stability, though you should say it was that of an icefield. Mental and spiritual conflicts were at least kept under or hedged in. If Pope Leo X could speak of “the Christian fable,” the Catholic world believed in the Church and all its spurious miracles, powers, and claims. If the French clergy and nobility of the last century were steeped in skepticism, the French people were enchained in superstition. English and American freethinking in former days was the function of a few. But now the changes without symbolize the changes within. With the fluctuation of physics, metaphysics, history, archæology, astronomy, chemistry, biology, all things seem to fluctuate. The "free thought” that once hung like a mist on the mountain tops has fallen in showers and filtered down through all the strata of society. Not alone are the great problems of human life and destiny to be dealt with afresh, but it has become a retail dealing, done at every man's own door. Belief has broken up. Thought has broken loose. All things flow. It is in all directions a time of intellectual and spiritual agitation unrest.
2. It is a time of questioning. Society in its largely new environments seems like some excited animal transferred to a new home and suspiciously exploring every nook and corner of its habitation. The changes of a century or a generation have been so various and so vast as almost to raise questions whether in the progress of discovery all previous knowledge may not prove to be error and all things settled are not to be unsettled. We have analyzed and generalized, till we are ready to ask, is there anything but endless analysis and infinite generalization? The bright goal we seem to approach becomes a phosphorescence in the marsh, that flees and lures us on.
We track life itself on and on towards its inner home, but ever eluding our grasp, till men ask, is there such a thing as life? Law is so vast, is there anything but law? Spirit and matter so intimately blend, are they not the same - and which is primal? Is there any element but one, and is that an element or a force? Is the will automatic ?
And so the questioning sweeps on even through the world of supposed historic fact. Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? Is the Iliad a poem or a crystallized solution of ballads ? and was Homer a poet or an epithet? Did Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence? Was there one Moses or a dozen ? Did Cæsar hesitate at the Rubicon? Was Henry VIII a tyrant ? Did Wellington say, “Oh, that night or Blücher would come!”? And so on ad infinitum, through every region and department of knowledge. Our thinking is largely a questioning. And what is more, an unfortunate habit has been engendered in many a mind to cultivate not the truth but the difficulties of truth - always a fatal habit. They put negations for affirmations. They hold not convictions but perplexities. I have heard a young man examined on his religious belief, when every time he gave, instead of an opinion, an objection. I have seen a statement of views by the young candidate for a professorial chair, on which it was a shrewd comment, “He is just acute enough to raise difficulties which he is too feeble to answer." And so it proved ; for he lapsed into a labyrinth. But he was no sinner above all other sinners. He was too much a modern typical thinker — and a very wretched type it is - asking and asking, and hearing no answer, unless it be that of Poe's horrid raven,
3. It is a time of speculations and of specialties. Strangely enough this is so in the midst of what is termed a matter-of-fact age. But observe that facts themselves are now chiefly sought on the line of a theory. “Working hypotheses," as they are called, cover all nature as thick as the fancied lions, bears, and scorpions of old cover the stars of the sky. We will not object. The difficulty of reaching bottom facts almost necessitates a tentative supposition in their place to bind outer phenomena together; and frequent revolutions, born of some new test or method, encourage the
use of provisional supports - were they but provisional ! And whatever may be said of theologians or metaphysicians, yet for men of speculation, of boundless theorizing, we look to-day admiringly to the students of nature. mathematics, to which they largely appeal, has caught the enthusiasm and draws grave conclusions from impossible and inconceivable premises, such as four dimensions of space.
The air is loaded with speculations in every line of thought. And as men follow their several theories and pursue their favorite studies along some chosen track, so they fall into the narrow ruts of specialties. The world is now full of departmental investigations, and therefore of narrow-range thought. Isolated studies are pushed to their extremest ramifications, till what might have been a tree becomes a solitary branch. We seem almost to read a prophecy in John Locke's
cription of those who “converse with but one sort
The very of men, read but one sort of books, come in the hearing of one sort of notions, canton out to themselves a little Goshen in the intellectual world, live mewed up in their own contracted territories," and are in want of “that which one may call large, sound, roundabout sense.” Educational processes quite enough take on this type - not alone at the close, where it is needful, but in the earlier stages, where it is harmful. And while we rejoice and give thanks for the elaborate detail and minute finish of modern days, it is a joy not unmingled. We are ready to ask at times whether portions of the product be not too much like the razor's edge exceeding sharp and exceeding thin; whether some of its healthy robustness and power may not have been bartered away for microscopic subtleties and feeble and doubtful analogies; whether with all our improvements and refinements the broad and positive habits of thought, engendered and prevalent in a former generation, did not lay quite as firm a hold on what was inspiring in human hope and magnanimous in human achievement. And is not the outlook of to-day often too much like that of some bad preraphaelite picture, where the elaborate delineation of the bark of a dead tree, or of the cracks and crevices of a rough rock in the foreground, absorbs all the glories of the landscape ? Speculations and specialties, if they are the strength, are also the weakness of our times. overrun with fractional thinkers and fragmentary thinking.