« PreviousContinue »
NATIONAL LIFE AND CHARACTER*
N "National Life and Character; a Forecast" Mr.
Oxford, and sometime Minister of Education in Victoria, has produced one of the most notable books of the end of the century. Mr. Pearson is not always quite so careful as he might be about his facts; many of the conclusions he draws from them seem somewhat strained; and with much of his forecast most of us would radically disagree. Nevertheless, no one can read this book without feeling his thinking powers greatly stimulated; without being forced to ponder problems of which he was previously wholly ignorant, or which he but half understood; and without realizing that he is dealing with the work of a man of lofty thought and of deep and philosophic insight into the world-forces of the present.
Mr. Pearson belongs to the melancholy or pessimist school, which has become so prominent in England during the last two or three decades, and which has been represented there for half a century. In fact, the note of despondency seems to be the dominant note among Englishmen of high cultivation at * The Sewanee Review, August, 1894.
the present time. It is as marked among their statesmen and publicists as among their men of letters, Mr. Balfour being particularly happy in his capacity to express in good English, and with much genuine elevation of thought, a profound disbelief in nineteenth century progress, and an equally profound distrust of the future toward which we are all traveling
For much of this pessimism and for many of the prophecies which it evokes, there is no excuse whatsoever. There may possibly be good foundation for the pessimism as to the future shown by men like Mr. Pearson; but hitherto the writers of the stamp of the late “Cassandra” Greg, who have been pessimistic about the present, have merely betrayed their own weakness or their own incapacity to judge contemporary persons and events. The weakling, the man who can not struggle with his fellow-men and with the conditions that surround him, is very apt to think these men and these conditions bad; and if he has the gift of writing, he puts these thoughts down at some length on paper. Very strong men, moreover, if of morose and dyspeptic temper, are apt to rail at the present, and to praise the past simply because they do not live in it. To any man who will consider the subject from a scientific point of view, with a desire to get at the truth, it is needless to insist on the fact that at no period of the world's history has there been so much happiness generally diffused among mankind as now.
At no period of the world's history has life been so full of interest and of possibilities of excitement and enjoyment as for us who live in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This is not only true as far as the working classes are concerned, but it is especially true as regards the men of means, and above all of those men of means who also possess brains and ambition. Never before in the world's history have there been such opportunities thrown open to men, in the way of building new commonwealths, exploring new countries, conquering kingdoms, and trying to adapt the governmental policy of old nations to new and strange conditions. The half-century which is now closing has held out to the people who have dwelled therein some of the great prizes of history. Abraham Lincoln and Prince Bismarck have taken their places among the world's worthies. Mighty masters of war have arisen in America, in Germany, in Russia; Lee and Grant, Jackson and Farragut, Moltke, Skobeleff, and the Red Prince. The work of the chiefs of mechanical and electrical invention has never been equaled before, save perhaps by what was done in the first half of this same century. Never before have there been so many opportunities for commonwealth builders; new States have been pitched on the banks of the Saskatchewan; the Columbia, the Missouri, and the Colorado, on the seacoast of Australia, and in the interior of Central Africa. Vast regions have been won by the sword. Burmah and Turkestan, Egypt and Matabeleland, have rewarded the prowess of English and Russian conquerors, exactly as, when the glory of Rome was at its height, remote Mediterranean provinces furnished triumphs to the great military leaders of the Eternal City. English administrators govern subject empires larger than those conquered by Alexander. In letters no name has been produced that will stand with the first half-dozen of all literature, but there have been very many borne by men whose effect upon the literatures of their own countries has been profound, and whose works will last as long as the works of any men written in the same tongues. In science even more has been done; Darwin has fairly revolutionized thought; and many others stand but a step below him.
All this means only that the opportunities have been exceptionally great for the men of exceptionally great powers; but they have also been great for the men of ordinary powers. The workingman is, on the whole, better fed, better clothed, better housed, and provided with greater opportunities for pleasure and for mental and spiritual improvement than ever before. The man with ability enough to become a lawmaker has the fearful joy of grappling with problems as important as any the administrators and legislators of the past had to face. The ordinary man of adventurous tastes and a desire to get all out of life that can be gotten, is beyond measure better off than were his forefathers of one, two, or three centuries back. He can travel round the world; he can dwell in any country he wishes; he can explore strange regions; he can spend years by himself in the wilderness, hunting great game; he can take part in a campaign here and there. Whithersoever his tastes lead him, he finds that he has far greater capacity conferred upon him by the conditions of nineteenth-century civilization to do something of note than ever a man of his kind had before. If he is observant, he notes all around him the play of vaster forces than have ever before been exerted, working, half blindly, half under control, to bring about immeasurable results. He sees going on before his eyes a great transfer of population and civilization, which is making America north of the Rio Grande, and Australia, English-speaking continents; which has filled Central and South America with States of uncertain possibilities; which is creating for the first time a huge Aryan nation across the entire north of Asia, and which is working changes in Africa infinitely surpassing in importance all those that have ever taken place there since the days when the Bantu peoples first built their beehive-huts on the banks of the Congo and the Zambesi. Our century has teemed with life and interest.
Yet this is the very century at which Carlyle railed; and it is strange to think that he could speak of the men at that very moment engaged in doing such deeds, as belonging to a worn-out age. His vision was clear to see the importance and the true bearing of England's civil war of the seventeenth century, and yet he remained mole-blind to the vaster and more important civil war waged before his very eyes in nineteenth-century America.