God formed man of the dust of the ground and he became a living soul.- Jewish Bible.
I count life just a stuff
To try the soul’s strength on, educe the man.Browning.
At our last meeting the suggestion was made that, at some far off period in our world’s history, a separation took place in the advancing current of life. In process of time, one of those parted streams, running through a long series of changes, reached its culmination in mankind. Acting under guidance, gradually man acquired all those mental and moral qualities which distinguish him from the purely animal kingdom and give him his unique place in the plan of creation. Man became a soul.
The details of time and place and the method by which this was accomplished are unknown. Perhaps they will always remain concealed. The only evident thing is that at some time and in some way the amazing result was accomplished. Between humanity and all other forms of earthly life there is an impassable gulf. There is an irreconcilable difference between the high est form of animal instinct and the lowest form of human reasoning, in that the one possesses no capacity for improvement while the other is capable of all degrees of progress. That which on one side is a herd, on the other is society. On one side existence is purely material ; on the other it is partly spiritual. On one side happiness is a result of physical well-being; on the other it is involved with right and wrong and is partly a moral product. In thus separating humanity from all other forms of life, it is not probable that the Creator varied from His usual method. That plan seems to be to build from the foundation upward; to move forward, not by leaps and flights, but by orderly steps ; to work by law, not by miracle. The probabilities are that instead of being an exception, man is the confirmation and highest illustration of this method.
It has been pointed out that nature is self-similar. The drop of water is made of the same kind of material as is the ocean. The same force which holds the grains of sand to earth, holds earth in space. The structure of the tree repeats itself in each leaf. Thinking of this similarity Goethe wrote :
We must, contemplating Nature,
Part as whole, give equal heed so:
Nought is inward, nought is outward,
For the inner is the outer.”
Thus that which has occurred in the history of the race occurs in the life of each person. As the soul of humanity was slowly constructed by the action of constant forces, so souls are formed in individuals by a similar process. They do not arrive on earth for new human beings ready made and complete. In Greek mythology Venus, who represents physical perfection, rose instantly from the sea; and Athena, who represents intellectual perfection, sprang from the brow of Jove ; and, in Hebrew mythology, Adam and Eve were fully furnished with all mental and moral powers ; but, in fact, neither physical nor moral beauty suddenly came to earth in perfection. Myths and legends may furnish material for theologians, but not for historians and students of nature. As humanity appeared, not instantly, but progressively, so this method on a smaller arena is repeated in the history of each human being. The seed is not a flower; it is the possibility of a flower. Thus each new human being is not a soul, but a soul possibility.
It need not be assumed that the mental and moral condition of the newly arrived denizen of earth is wholly negative. It is not an absolute blank. Locke compared the infant to a sheet of white paper upon which circumstances write the whole life history. This is an imperfect illustration, for a child inherits much from near and remote ancestors. It is more like a sheet of paper upon which many characters have been written with invisible ink whose outline and meaning time and events will reveal. A child seems to know some things without learning them. The bird called the “Fly Catcher” begins to exercise its vocation as soon as it is born ; and the quail runs and the fish swims without being taught. So there are certain mental and moral traits in the child that are not acquired by its own individual efforts. Leaving out the experience of all its ancestry, it seems to have intuitions of right and wrong as it has underived ideas of space and time.
They exist independently of all individual experiences. Sometimes it may be truly said : “Nature kindly gives the blood a moral flow.”
Nevertheless, that which is called soul is gradually built in each individual. At first life is purely that of sense. Sense perceptions, whether pleasurable or painful, are unattended by any thought concerning them. The power of analysis and classifying these sense-perceptions, of choosing some and avoiding others, comes later. Perhaps the first step the child takes toward consciousness or a recognition of its own personality is to distinguish between its own body and other objects. In philosophy this is called the distinction between the “me” and the “not me.” The soul begins to manifest itself clearly when the child can say “I” and “thou.” The verses of Tennyson describing this process are as true as they are beautiful :
“The baby, new to earth and sky,
What time its tender palm is pressed
Against the circle of the breast,
Has never thought that this is I.
But as he grows he gathers much,
And learns the use of I and me,
And finds I am not what I see
And other than the things I touch.
So rounds he to a separate mind,
From whence clear memory may begin,
As through the frame that binds him in
His isolation grows defined.”
Sometimes this revelation of personality seems to come suddenly. Jean Paul gives this account of its coming to him :
“On a pertain forenoon I stood a very young child within the house’-door and was looking out toward the wood-pile, when, in an instant, the inner revelation, I am I, like lightning from heaven, flashed and stood brightly before me. In that moment I had seen myself as I for the first time and forever.”
Jacob Behmen speaks of his coming to consciousness in this way :
“When a young child I accompanied my father and mother to the communion, and when the pastor took the pewter cup containing the wine its sheen seemed’ to pass through my eyes into my innermost being. In an instant I saw myself as a being separated from all other things and felt within me a divine flame that would shine eternally. I shall never forget that moment of illumination.”
Thus these two mortals seem to have beheld the birth of their own souls. To them it seemed to be the work of a moment. But what they saw was doubtless the culmination and not the beginning of the process. They saw the sunrise, but not the twilight preceding it. They saw the river flashing in the sunlight, but not the many concealed springs that formed it. It seems therefore more reasonable to conclude that the soul, in harmony with all other things, comes by a gradual process. Every child is a mental and moral possibility. It is a candidate for reason and beauty and goodness. The true self is not given, but is only promised. A poet may have inspiration ; but the poem is formed line by line out of words and sentiments al-ready existing. An artist may have a love of beauty and may see colors and forms in outline before they are seen on canvas ; but the picture itself grows day by day by the application of the artist’s sense of beauty to real forms and colors. In marble quarries and in her beauty-loving children, in the old Grecian period, nature contained the promise and possibility of statues and temples ; but it was only after many attempts and the coming and going of many generations that the actual statues and temples of the marvelous days of Pericles rose into view. Thus, to each new comer into the ranks of humanity, there is given the promise and possibility of a soul ; but the actual soul is a progressive work. The power to become a conscious personality belongs to the child by virtue of the place it occupies in the plan of nature. Within are certain tendencies and faculties, while the world and time furnish material and opportunity. Upon the material selected and the opportunities embraced the quality of the structure depends. It may be a hovel or a palace ; an abode of demons or a home of blessed angels.
In this work there are two things that play a large part : Temperament and Circumstance. The one is inherited; the other is formed and permitted by society. In the story of Laocoon the serpents wound their terrible folds around the children of the priest and destroyed them because of his insult to the gods. This is a fable of real life. Sometimes children are crushed in the awful coils of adverse fate because of insults heaped upon the divine laws by their ancestors. In the classic legend the father flew to rescue his sons from the crushing embrace of the monsters. His efforts were hopeless and father and sons all perished So parents are often powerless to rescue their offspring from the consequences of their own misdeeds or those of their ancestors. Enceladus, with the mountain piled upon his bosom, was not more powerless than are those mortals who come into the world with a long inheritance of evil tendencies. The mountain would quake and heave and the hot breath of the Titan would steam up through its top as he struggled and writhed to free himself, but his efforts were useless. Had he been able to escape he might have again stormed the battlements of those heavens wherein resided the feasting and cruel gods and, gaining the victory, have brought benefits to earth. Thus many of the young have had mountains piled upon them by their progenitors ; and, while there may come to them many momentary impulses to throw it off and rise to perform some noble deeds, the old load still weighs them down. There is an abundance of material in the world out of which to build noble souls, but how can those build who are hopelessly bound? However much they might wish to do so, the unhappy Jews could not build their temple at Jerusalem while they were held captives at Babylon. Only when they were liberated and were masters of their own actions could they turn their wishes into deeds. Thus the prisoners of ignorance, of dullness, of unholy passions cannot build a noble life temple. They must first be free.
It is at this point the ethical quality of the subject manifests itself. The word “ought” enters into our reflections. But the stress of this term rests first, not upon the children, but upon the parents. That which is irresponsibility in the one is responsibility in the other. The child cannot choose its ancestors. It can-not select the stream of tendencies upon which to launch the little bark of life. Before power of choice is given it finds itself already afloat and being borne forward on a strong current. The pilot, under whose guidance the young voyager finds himself when he comes to consciousness, was furnished by his parents. Hence much of the responsibility for the safety and success of the voyage is not his, but theirs. To be started in the right direction is not enough in itself to reach the right port ; but, in order to gain the right port it is one of the things that are indispensable. With the right direction and the best of pilots the long voyage is yet to be made ;made in the face of difficulties ; mid storm and calm ; through days of splendor and nights of darkness ; sometimes over vast, silent depths, sometimes over reefs and shallows where breakers rage and roar. But finally the goal is gained; whereas, those who started in the wrong direction and with an unwise and cowardly hand at the helm will never reach the desired haven. The parable of the two men, one of whom built his house upon a rock, the other upon sand, is of perpetual significance. It refers to character. Parents should beware what kind of material they furnish for the foundation of a young life. When the laws of heredity are studied, it is not difficult to understand why so many lives fall in ruins when the first storm overtakes them.
It therefore follows that the obligation to give every child a strong natural impulse toward building its soul out of those materials of truth and beauty and goodness, found in our world in such rich profusion, is very great and very pressing. It cannot be overstated ; it cannot be avoided. All around youth lies a world of great thoughts, noble aims, sacred emotions ; but, be-cause there is no inherited desire to behold it, in too many cases it is a world unknown. A traveler in England found aged men who all their lives had been within twenty miles of the sea and yet had never be-held it. For them there was no ocean. Thus there are those for whom the sublimities of the mental and moral and spiritual world do not exist. In Europe parents wish to bestow hereditary titles, and in America they wish to leave great wealth to their children. This is but natural and does not deserve unmodified blame. But to inherit a tendency toward truth and virtue is a far richer treasure than the title to any throne in Europe or any fortune in America.
But a good impulse must be attended by good conditions. A noble temperament may fail in part because of ignoble surroundings. There are some historic incidents of those who have mastered the most hostile circumstances. Once a temple was built by those who, in one hand, held an implement of labor and in the other a weapon of defense. Thus there are those who, conquering and toiling by turns, have builded a noble life structure. But for humanity at large the better the opportunity, the greater the probabilities of success. The best of wheat grains cannot grow on a bare rock ; and, planted in a desert, the strong oak would soon perish.
Herein lies the responsibility of society. The cheering fact is that while evil has a tendency to perpetuate itself this tendency can be partially turned aside by education. Hence society is under obligation to pro-vide young life with ample opportunities for the unfolding of all its powers. The child must not only be impelled by inheritance to select the right path, but the path should be in full sight to be chosen. It should be the first thing it sees when it comes to spiritual consciousness. It should be seen running through the home, through the school, through early companion-ships and then winding sweetly through all the affairs of the larger world. Youth should be enabled to see our earth, not only as a planet rolling forward in its orbit carrying oceans, continents, cities, farms, nations and fifteen hundred millions of human beings, but a planet moving in a vaster orbit around a greater sun carrying all the principles of truth and goodness and beauty.
Better conditions in society at large would greatly aid in the construction of noble personal character. What a gain it would be if a new generation could come to an earth whose seas floated no warships ; whose nations were not impoverished by immense standing armies ; whose fair fields were not devastated by brutal wars; whose cities were governed without fraud; whose politics had become the practice of statesmen ; whose churches were all engaged in teaching a simple and pure religion ! Born into an atmosphere of truth and goodness, noble thoughts and virtuous deeds might become an unconscious habit of each child. Thousands of each new generation would be
“Glad souls without reproach or blot
Who do God’s will yet know it not.”
If the time and energy employed in resisting inherited tendencies within and bad conditions without were all devoted to positive building, the structure of noble character would rise much more rapidly. All impressions made by the natural world would become thought ; thought would become emotion ; emotion would become will ; and will would become noble action. Each life would be a union of the human and Divine, the true incarnation, long foretold, and for which the ages have waited and still wait.
But while giving due heed to inherited tendencies and surroundings, it must not be forgotten that personal responsibility is also very great in the formation of character. Whatever may be the quality and the outcome of a life, whether ascending toward the heights of moral grandeur or descending toward the abyss of shame, neither ancestry nor circumstance is deserving of all praise or all blame. The individual himself plays a great part in the drama whose acts and scenes are portrayed amid the rising and falling curtains of seventy years. In order to build a soul that will stand like the house built on a rock, while others are swept away, there must be strong, persistent personal effort. There must not only be the accumulation of the best material, but there must be a constant determination to mold it into form. Having made a noble resolution, no opportunity to enforce it should be neglected. Hard tasks should not be postponed. As touching some of the blandishments of life, there must be a certain asceticism. Instead of passive submission to limitations, there should be a heroic advance. Hindrances should only be incentives to greater effort. To the resolute, all things yield ; to the advancing all barriers fall away. Whatever comes is first subdued and then made an ally. Pain, no less than pleasure, disappointment, no less than expectation, failure, as much as success, grief and joy, loneliness and companionship all in turn assist in building the soul.
In ancient Athens there was an upper and a lower city. In the lower were the common homes of the citizens, the common roads and the market places. Higher up were the porches of philosophy, and the theater in which were witnessed the great plays of Sophocles. The highest point was crowned by a magnificent temple, from which was a vast outlook over rich valleys, on one side toward the mountains, on the other toward the sea. Rising from the lower to the upper city a great man constructed a long flight of marble’ steps. This stairway was almost as wonderful as the temple to which it led. It was not only the way up to grandeur, but was itself a part of the grandeur.
This is a picture of human life on our planet. The lower city was built first. It was purely material. But, in the creative plan, there were heights to be attained and crowned with magnificence. Out of the accumulating experience of countless generations an ascending way was formed. On the slope of the mountain art galleries and schools of philosophy were erected ; but, on heights overtowering all others, in stately outline stands the temple of religion.
That which has been done by Humanity should be repeated by every individual. We should all behold heights lying far above the lower ranges of mere physical existence. Out of all the events which, from youth to age, the great solemn years empty into our lives, we should construct a stairway up which we may mount to the grand scenes awaiting us. Thus building and ascending the stairway will rival that of Pericles ; and, at the end, we shall find a temple that will stand in perfect beauty when all earth’s Parthenons have crumbled into dust.