Affliction cometh not forth from the dust, neither doth trouble spring out of the ground, yet man is born to trouble as the sparks to fly upward. Job
Literature is a mirror of human thought and action. It reflects the world at large. It is at once an expression of the present age and of all ages. It is molded into form by the changing Time Spirit, but the Eternal Spirit is its unchanging source and inspiration.
It has been justly said that “he who speaks truly to himself, speaks to a multitude of men.” So, when one is writing of his own time he is, in part, writing of all times. This is only another way of saying that Humanity is a constant quantity. Thus the continuity of the human race, the recurrence through a hundred generations of the same experience, the continued re-appearance of similar thoughts and dreams and passions in all stages of man’s journey through time, almost blots out the distinctions between old and new literature.
Every reader of books called classic is apprised of the similarity between the questions discussed in them and those discussed in more recent books. Almost every social condition with which we are accustomed was treated in them. The relation of the state to the individual ; the marriage relation ; education of youth ; standards of morality, public and private ; the character of Deity; the origin and nature and meaning of beauty; all the manifold relations of the soul to the world are described and interpreted in the books that have come forward through twenty-five centuries. Much of the work of our modern writers is a mere translation of old sentences into more accustomed speech and the addition of some new illustrations and applications of ancient principles. The instrument may be new, but it is the same old tune.
Applying these reflections, the sentence quoted a moment ago from the ancient Arabian drama has a accustomed meaning. A fragment of the world’s oldest literature, yet so modern, so up-to-date is its meaning, that it might have been written yesterday. The same things which perplexed the intellect and depressed the heart of that far off writer are still perplexing and depressing us. While, with him, agreeing that afflictions do not come uncaused from the dust, and troubles do not spring spontaneously out of the ground, yet, from some source, they come in great abundance. Some critics find fault with Hamlet’s rhetoric when he speaks of “taking up arms against a sea of troubles ;” but no. fault can be found with his meaning. In their extent, man’s troubles sometimes do seem to be ocean wide and ocean deep. Not many mortals, for all their lives, can ride lightly and unharmed over the rising and falling waves. Some are frequently driven out of their course and long baffled by the storm tossed surges. Not all sink beneath the tumult, but many who escape, scarred and shattered, come into port. The statement of the ancient poet is not an exaggeration : “Man seems born to trouble as the sparks to fly upward.”
The word trouble is another form of the word turbulence. It is that which breaks up the order of things and destroys peace. The fact for which it stands appears first in natural processes. What turmoils earth experienced before man came ! From primal fire-mist, onward until its present form was reached, there is a long series of disturbances. It is said that while the globe was cooling there were dreadful tempests, some of which lasted a thousand years. Scarped cliffs, and hundreds of miles of rock strata standing on edge, show what titanic forces have troubled earth from within. Gorges, cut in mountain ranges, and untold acres of soil, in valleys and prairies, show how, long ago, great glaciers, hundreds of miles in extentOdin’s plows and harrowsmoved relentlessly for-ward from the frigid zone disturbing the serenity of the whole continent. But it will be noted that earth seemed to profit by its experience. After each tumult came a longer reign of serenity. Its troubles were benefactors in disguise.
Something similar to this occurs in human life. Man often turns his trials into triumphs. Obstacles have been made into steps by which he has mounted to greater power. Necessity is often the spur by which the race is won. Many of humanity’s noblest attributes have come out of struggle with unkind circumstances. As a rainbow is produced by sun and storm, so much of human glory is but the triumph of the soul shining on the cloud of adversity. Swept by a tempest, the sea becomes dark and turbid, but afterward it seems more transparent and many beautiful shells line its shores. So, having been made tumultuous by a storm of adversity, the soul is afterward purified, and, in the great calm, clearer thoughts and more exalted emotions are visible. As in the Testament story, trouble is often an angel disturbing the pool of a life that its waters may have more healing virtue.
“Saint Augustine ! well hast thou said,
That of our vices we may frame
A ladder, if we will but tread
Beneath our feet each deed of shame.
All thoughts of ill; all evil deeds,
That have their roots in thoughts of ill;
Whatever hinders or impedes,
The action of the nobler will:-
All these must first be trampled down
Beneath our feet, if we would gain,
In the bright fields of fair renown
The right of eminent domain.”
Standing on what too long we bore
With shoulders bent and downcast eyes,
We may discernunseen before
A path to higher destinies.
Nor deem the irrevocable Past,
As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
If, rising on its wrecks, at last
To something nobler we attain.”
Old as the history of philosophy, so old is the con-test between fate and freedom. Under different names, it is seen in every department of life. In metaphysics the contestants are called necessity and liberty; in nature, law and chance; in theology, Divine Sovereignty and Human Will. The earliest religions of India are the arena on which these two gladiators are seen in conflict. The motive of nearly all the Greek tragedies is that of mortals battling with Destiny. Christianity produced two parties known as Calvinists and Arminiansthe former maintaining Divine predestination, the latter human will as the efficient cause of salvation. In our day the debate ranges around between soul and circumstance, or the individual and the environment.
Because of this variation in thought, there is always some difficulty in determining the quality and quantity of human responsibility belonging to human actions. If we are bound by eternal decree, if we are slaves of fate, if we are walled in by circumstance, then no responsibility can be attached to our conduct. We are deserving of neither praise nor blame. On the contrary, if some freedom belongs to us, if we can partly annul the decrees of fate, if circumstances are plastic and capable of modification, then we cannot escape responsibility. The terms “ought” and `ought not” stand for a reality.
As in all discussions, so in this one, the practical, which is also the essential truth, is found in neither extreme, but in a middle statement. Character is a resultant of two forces, namely, of law and free will. Man is partly creature, partly creator of his destiny. If he is architect of his own fortune, nature supplies the building material. He more resembles a ship on the sea than a train on its iron road. A train cannot choose its direction or its destination. The track determines these in advance. A ship must, indeed ,keep on the water, but the broad expanse allows it great liberty. Leaving New York, by a little shifting of the helm, it can touch any port of any continent. Seeing the shipping of the Bay of Naples, a minor poet wrote :
“Yon deep bark goes
Where Traffic blows,
From lands of sun to lands of snows ;
This happier one,
Its course is run
From lands of snow to lands of sun.”
Within limits, a similar liberty belongs to mankind. Many are the ports from which and to which the life voyage may be made. The sea of opportunity is very broad.
It cannot be denied that man is the victim of some misfortunes for which he is not responsible. Plans are ruined by forces over which he has no control. He sows, but some flood or drought or frost leaves him nothing to reap. He builds, but a tempest or earthquake or lightning reduces his building to a heap of ruins. He aspires, but his feet are fastened in the clay by a bad ancestry or by poverty or by an enforced ignorance. To the harried and hindered mortal, it does sometimes seem as if his afflictions rise from the dust and his troubles spring forth from the ground. There seems to be a settled perversity, some spirit of evil lurking in the elemental forces which delights in thwarting all his efforts and in turning sweetest hopes into bitterest disappointments. The world sometimes seems to be a huge witches’ kettle to brew misfortunes, around which, on a gloomy heath, dismal fates dance in measure to the horrid chant, as in the famous drama :
“Double, double, toil and trouble:
Fire, burn ; and, caldron, bubble.”
Nevertheless, the same justice that excuses and pities man for some calamities, must blame him for others. It is easy, but not always just to shift responsibility for our errors to heredity or unfriendly circumstances. In morals, as in physics, the line of least resistance is easiest, and, hence, most popular. The Paradise story, in which the man blames the woman and the woman blames the serpent, is copied from life. We have all been that man and woman.
It is to be regretted that, by making myths into doctrines, the church encouraged us to trace our misfortunes to some other source than ourselves. With our natural tendency to shift responsibility we did not need such instruction. We were taught that an evil spirit, almost equaling Deity in power, was the primal cause of human misery. Man’s vices and virtues were alike imputed to him. Adam had made a good life impossible, and Christ had made it unnecessary.
Apart from theological fictions, it is readily seen that man, himself, is cause of most of his misfortunes ; and it follows that, if he is their cause, he must also be their cure. The sorrows of Faust were consequences of his misdeeds. Mephistopheles was his own doubts and passions personified. The shadows falling on Benedict Arnold’s old age were cast by the evil acts of his earlier years. The same thing may be said of Aaron Burr. Did the afflictions of Lady Macbeth spring from the dust? The stain on her white hand was made by a drop of blood sent thither by her own guilty heart. Whence comes the tempter to men in places of trust telling them to barter honesty for sudden wealth? It comes from within. Cassius said to his wavering fellow conspirator:
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
So it is not in any external thing, but in ourselves that we are sinners. If man will avoid bringing troubles upon himself, he can easily bear those which nature imposes.
What is it that hinders civilization? It cannot be the laws of nature. On the contrary, the world seems very friendly and generous. It places all its forces at man’s disposal. Earth lavishly furnishes him food and raiment. Where there is such abundance of food and raiment, there is no natural reason for any one to be hungry or unclothed. Rightly distributed, there is enough for all, and to spare. The trouble of hunger and nakedness is due wholly to human mismanagement. Water willingly turns wheels and floats ships. Steam and electricity are perfectly willing to carry burdens. It was not Satan that seized the coal lands and then went into partnership with railroads to make the poor shiver in winter, in order that a great fortune might be amassed by a few individuals. It was human beings did that; and some of them are church members. Satan was not fined twenty-nine million dollars for violation of law. It was human beings who were found guilty. It was not Satan who cut down the great forests, thus diminishing the rain-fall, partly drying up the streams ; by sloven waste impoverishing the future, that he might pile up a fortune for himself. It was human beings did this. It was not Satan who tried to keep the price of copper far above its legitimate value and brought about a financial crisis in which many innocent and honest persons were made to suffer. It was some human gamblers did this. Not a partial failure of crops, but a partial failure of human honesty caused the recent panic in New York. It was not a succession of great fires, nor a pestilence, but a company of dishonest officers that brought trouble to insurance companies.
It is so everywhere. Jerusalem was not destroyed by an earthquake, but by an army. It was not a hurricane, but the Greeks themselves that beat down their cities. Not a tidal wave, but the Macedonians leveled Thebes. Rome was not overwhelmed by a volcano, but by an army from beyond the Alps. The progress of Germany was not arrested for two centuries by frost or flood or drought, but by the Thirty Years War. Man is his own worst enemy. He is architect of his own misfortunes.
Many of our social and political troubles and perplexities are of our own making. We might all have known that immense importations of ignorance into this country would bring trouble. Ignorance and liberty make a bad combination. We all now see clearly that it was not national benevolence, but national vanity that made us wish for possession of the far off islands of the Orient. We went a long distance out of our way to find additional troubles when we had plenty of them near at home. It would seem as if periodic disturbances in the industrial and monetary world might be avoided. They come partly from lack of any permanent principle involved in the conduct of business, and the uncertainty of legislation. There should be no excuse for anxiety or a period of nervous prostration overtaking our industries every four years. There is not enough moral difference in the two political parties into which our citizens are divided to make it a matter of much importance which of them holds the many great and small offices. Administrations are only episodes, but the laws of trade are perpetual principles. A few votes may decide the political majority in a state, and this may determine which of two equally good and equally wise men may be president of these States ; but votes can have no effect on the natural laws of finance. The principles of political economy are as superior to majorities as are the principles of geometry. It is as evident that supply should not exceed demand as that more than two right angles cannot be crowded into a triangle. If producers would recognize this necessity, they would be spared much trouble. If, when wages are high, and work is abundant, a laboring man spends his surplus earnings for beer, he should not be surprised when the time comes that he can scarcely earn enough to buy bread. The man who mortgages his home to enjoy the luxury of an automobile need not complain when he finds him-self and his family deprived of the necessity of a home. His trouble did not spring from the ground, but from his own foolish heart. When a man tries to corner all the copper or corn or cotton, and encounters financial ruin, his affliction does not come from the dust, but from his own cupidity and arrogance. When a fire is kindled, sparks do, indeed, fly upward, but in no greater profusion than do troubles rise from wicked or foolish hearts.
It is bad for a nation when selfish partisanism be-comes a successful rival of generous patriotism. What else but troubles can be expected when so many of its extemporized statesmen are more shrewd than wise, and their political prominence is out of all proportion to their moral worth? Can we expect anything but trouble so long as ethical ideals are ruthlessly sacrificed to immediate personal or party triumph? Not till Niagara’s flood falls upward and the stars halt in their courses. Nameless here, but how many leaders in finance and politics, within recent years, have brought shame to their friends and dishonor to their country! Of the murdered king it was said :
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking off.”
This could not be written of some of our political and financial kings. They have no trumpet tongued nor even penny whistle virtues to plead for them. Richly meriting oblivion, let it not be withheld from them.
Superintendents of telegraph lines at times become aware that everything is not as it should be. Unable to locate the difficulty from their offices, a man is sent along the line to find it. This man is called a “trouble hunter.”
It is evident that there is something wrong in the conduct of affairs. What is needed is some one who will locate the trouble and tell us how to remove it. Is the line between the hearts of our millions and moral ideals, out of repair, so that no more cheering messages are received from that high office? Have the rightful rewards of financial prosperity been unequally distributed? Have trusts and gigantic corporations ignored or overridden the rights of individuals? Has business become a form of predatory warfare? Have we depended upon legislation to accomplish that which only the awakened and justice loving soul of a multitude of citizens can perform? Have we so become creatures of money making; so lost confidence in the ethical laws; become so practical as to have no faith in the ideal ; so devoted to expediency and opportunism as to neglect the ultimate right ; so skeptical that we no more believe in the soul and God? One thing is sure: The troubles are present; and, until their cause is found and removed, they will stay with us.
If all the cares and problems that are now bringing anxiety to so many hearts came at the decree of Fate, without human consent or agency, the case would be hopeless. But, since man is such an actor in causing them, it is reassuring to know that he may be an equal actor in curing them. If a man break the laws of health, he is troubled with pain ; if he break the laws of knowledge, he is troubled with ignorance; if he break the laws of trade, he is troubled with bankruptcy; if he break the laws of honesty, he is troubled with fines or imprisonment. Therefore, if we would avoid these troubles, we must obey the laws of knowledge and health and trade and honesty. It is childish for him, whose troubles come from violation of natural and human laws, to excuse himself by the plea that he is a victim of cruel circumstances. Having sown the wind, one must expect to reap the whirlwind,so true is it in the moral, as in the material world, that like produces like, and the harvest is thirty or sixty or a hundred fold greater than the planting.
One clear truth emerges : Man is no more born to misery than to happiness. It is possible so to live that flowers far surpass thorns in his path across earth. Has the mad thirst for gold brought unhappiness? Let wisdom bring her cup and with it touch the parched lips of our nation. Does the possession of great wealth bring anxiety? Let benevolence scatter the heaped up mass for the lasting benefit of humankind. Has extension of dominion through vain-glory, has the presence of black millions, has the inpouring of alien races from Europe unfit for citizenship, has the threatened invasion of other hordes from Asia, has the control of legislation by corporate wealth brought troubles to the republic? Then let a sense of honor, a breadth of view, a true patriotism as far as possible control those who in exalted or humble office serve our country. Does intemperance in food and drink bring troubles? Then let common sense dispel them. Do idleness and improvidence bring troubles ? Then let industry and prudence be free to act and poverty and suffering will be reduced a thousand fold. Does the future, with its many unknown vicissitudes and its one certain impressive event awaiting all living beings, sometimes seem full of concealed cares? Then know that a habit of confidence in the ultimate beneficence of nature’s plan and unwavering trust in the great Creator will banish many of them. If the cloud is not scattered, there will be wide rifts through which sunbeams are streaming.
Wisdom and Love ! Wisdom and Love ! O my Brothers ! could these angels gain and hold permanent possession of the universal heart of humankind for a few generations, the present scene would be transformed and the new Scriptures would read: Lo! man is born to happiness as the sparks to fly upward.