Wednesday, 28 May 2014

THE DEARTH OF GENIUS.

Detractors of the age (writes the London "Nation") think it a telling argument to refer us "back to the seventies," asking what men we have to set against the giants of those days. In poetry they ask us, "Where is your Tennyson and Browning, your coming Swinburne, your Matthew Arnold?" "What theologians to-day can rank with Newman, Stanley, Lightfoot, Martineau, or Manning? What historians with Freeman, Froude, and J. R. Green? What essayists with Carlyle and Ruskin? Among general thinkers or philosophers, whom will you match against Mill, Spencer, or T. H. Green? In this boasted age of science, who stands out as did Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, 30 years ago? Even in the novel whom will you pit against the George Eliot, Dickens, Meredith, of the last generation?" And so they brandish in the world of politics the names of Gladstone and Disraeli, in art those of Rosetti and Burne-Jones, and  repeat in ever-growing confidence their challenge.   

The great men of the seventies carried a certain real distinction of personality, an inspiration of expression, which no body of men of similar influence and authority carry now. Poets, artists, essayists, scientists, were in large measure the conscious prophets or interpreters of new, large transforming ideas, the quick fruitage of recent discovery and audacious speculation in 50 new fields. It was a time of Pisgah views, of swift, unfolding visions and transformations, which furnished strong nourishment and splendid inspiration to men of quick imagining and popular sympathies. The early intellectual and emotional operation of the new scientific and critical ideas was liberative and thaumaturgic; the extension of the reign of law into human history, the doctrines of the conservation of energy and correlation of physical forces, the great conception of scientific evolution, still lay in a vague plaster shape, rich material for the poetic eloquence of an "In Memoriam" or a "Belfast Address."

Such oracles are now dumb, and it is their trumpet notes we miss not only among the poets of our time, but among the statesmen, scientists, and reformers. The great liberative and stimulative thoughts of a generation ago seem to have become conservative and restrictive, almost paralysing influences of to-day. This is partly what is meant by saying that we live in a too critical age. It is not merely the evident breakdown of old orthodoxies in religion, politics, and general thought, but the rapid subsidence of the early effervescence of the new formative ideas. Science seems to have over-mechanised our thinking and our outlook upon life, as it has our industries; the glow and inspiration has died out of the new thought, and have left a dull heritage of semi-fatalistic formulae, breeding excessive caution, and imposing the intellectual duty of going slow.

We are to-day cultivating, as the best fruit of modern culture, a type of broad-minded, shallow-feeling man and woman, who move with self-conscious slowness among the intricacies of life, shunning fanaticism and refusing to take risks. Many familiar features of our modern civilisation co-operate with this tendency, the growth of material comfort and security in an age of peace, strong governments, and economic advance. There is also the congestion of ideas and of information, pouring out upon the mind in ways that well nigh inhibit selection and preclude settled convictions upon issues of critical importance to the inner life. Such conditions are injurious to the emergence and free life of natural genius. Men bred in these intellectual preserves will not venture as boldly as their fathers into the wilds of life, they will be less eager and less able to "grasp the skirts of happy chance and breast the blows of circumstance" in following their star. It is the general recognition of these facts that leads not a few modern counsellors to urge, justly, if somewhat vaguely, that what is wanted is "a new religion." For most patent among our discouragements of effort is the gradual fading of practical faith. Not merely in the personal Providence of current theologies, but in the creative powers of man and the sustaining order of the universe.

Take the present case of politics as a signal example. Is it not evidently true that we can there do no great work because of our unbelief, and that the marking-time in most of our great humanitarian movements is primarily due to a want of confidence in man's mission in the universe? Not a few of our churches are alive to the torpor of our times, but their magical rites seem ineffectual for exorcising it. It may be perhaps, to a further, fuller, wiser science that we must first look for the new impulse which shall break the spell, revivify the dulled emotions, and kindle once more the live imaginations to great and spiritually fruitful endeavors.

 The Advertiser 8 August 1908,

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