Sunday, 26 April 2015

THE AGE OF CHANGE

BY AN ECLECTIC.

Of the various characteristics of the time in which we live one stands in relief, prominent before all others. It is emphatically the age of change. It is not only that great and profound changes are going on around and within us, that geographical divisions are disappearing and altering, petty states fusing into great countries, and all the relations of the nations to each other becoming modified; it is not only that our social lives are changing, and the centres of political power are shifting, that our minds are coming under the rule of new and potent ideas which are recasting all of our mental possessions, and that some intellectual and spiritual influences which have hitherto been most powerful over the minds of men are waning and fading away. This is much, but this is not all. The most noteworthy element of the character of the day is the readiness with which change is greeted, and the expectations based upon it We have wholly repudiated the authority of the past. The traditions and beliefs of the past—to borrow a phrase from politics—only hold office till their successors can be appointed. We seem to have got out of the known all that it has to give, and our hope now rests on the unknown. We say to the ideals of the past
" Long we wander'd with you, feeding
Our rapt souls on your replies,
 In a wistful silence reading
All the meaning of your eyes.
By moss-bordered statues sitting,
By well-heads, in summer days.
But we turn, our eyes are flitting—
See, the white east, and the morning rays !"

I cannot do better by way of fully illustrating the spirit of our modern life about which I speak than quote the following passage from a philosophical English journal descriptive of a change which it discerns in the English character. Our contemporary, writing of recent letters by Dr. Hillebrand on English society, says:—

"It seems to us, who are English—and consequently, probably remarks Dr. Hillebrand, who is capable of sarcasm, just a little stupid-that he has hit upon the most interesting fact in our whole present position the appearance among us, or rather among a section of our people, of a spirit of receptivity. Dr. Hillebrand calls it intolerance, Xenomania, and all sorts of fine things; but it is really a readiness to receive impressions and ideas, and is, so far as we are capable of observing, by far the greatest change observable among us. Its operation is limited, of course, and may be more limited than Dr. Hillebrand or we ourselves think, for all men live unconsciously in cliques; but within those limits, whatever they are, it is certain that English society is penetrated by a new spirit, that it is honestly ready not only to tolerate but to receive any new idea or system of thought or theology, and that so far from hating those who propound novelties it accords them a certain respect, and even—we select the word with care and with intention—with a certain gratitude. Society which would once have repelled the novelty with a certain brutality of scorn or dislike, or even hate, now listens seriously and gravely, and though it does not adopt it—Dr. Hillebrand is mistaken there, confusing tolerance with agreement—will place it on the shelves of its mind, as one of many alternatives to be respectfully considered. The new idea may be in the most violent conceivable opposition to 'English instincts,' may be atheistic, or communistic, or absolutist, or ascetic, or immoral, any of these in an extreme degree, and yet it will be considered as carefully and as respectfully as if it were a theory of a new motive-power likely to retain to its patentees cent. per cent. and enlarge the entire business of Great Britain. Grave men will discuss the theory among themselves, it will be reduced to words so clear that 'society' can comprehend them, and repeat them at dinner —English is getting as clear and as simple as French, in the new desire of society to understand what is said to it—it will be cleverly popularised in magazines, and finally, a few men will accept it as something, for a short time, to be preached. Not is this readiness to listen altogether superficial or Athenian, a merely intellectual pleasure in novel thought. There is a genuine desire to attend, a visible hope that if one hearkens long enough some light may be gained, a real detachment from the old and crusted kinds of thought—so real a one, that none listen more earnestly or in a better intellectual temper than those who, if the new ideas are true, whether in religion, politics, or literature, will be utterly destroyed by their operation." 

There is only one qualification I would wish to give to this finely graphic passage. And that is that the spirit it characterise is, I believe, not English but cosmopolitan. It is the spirit of the time in which we live. We need not discuss the question how far the degrees of its manifestation may differ in different states or stages of society. In degree it permeates them all and carries the same moving, fermenting, transforming influence with it. On all sides there is the feeling not so much in practical affairs as in the field of intellect, that

" Tis well an old age is out
And time to begin a new."

We share, all of us, in intellectual and speculative matters, the Jacobin spirit of Wordsworth's Rob Roy

" Of old things all are over old,
 Of good things none are good enough;
 We'll show that we can help to frame 
 A world of other stuff."

It cannot be questioned that of all the factors of the future, now working in the present, this of the eager intellectual acceptance of change, and the wistful hopefulness with which it is welcomed, must be one of the most powerful. It enables change to take place with accelerating velocity as one of the greatest obstacles to change is removed. This obstacle has been the habitual, stolid conservatism which clung to the existing, merely because it was existing, and strenuously opposed the new, merely because it was new. And this feeling or habit of mind had an intellectual side to it, and its source was the acceptance, as a logical axiom, that the old had always a strong presumption in its favour over the new. Language, and especially, perhaps, our English language, is rich in terms in which the belief in the wisdom of antiquity and the reverence due to the past is crystallised into phrases. Should the presumption ever pass to the other side, and intellectual etiquette, so to speak, dictate the paying social courtesy and attention to the new visitor, what a great swing would the balance take to the aide of innovation as against that of fixed conservatism. The nearer we approach the earliest stages of society the more fixed and changeless we find the habits of mind, the more fierce the opposition to reform, and the more slow and imperceptible the process of evolution. But change did take place, evolution did proceed, new methods, new thoughts, new ideas did make their way even in those days when everything tended to obstruct and retard them. And if it is true, as it seems to be, that this despotism of fixed habit, this tyranny of the past over the present, have really broken down, and disappeared, with how accelerated a rate may we expect that the changes of the past will take place, and how rapid will become the evolution of society.

Several causes tend at the present day to this reversal of the prerogatives of the old and the new. The researches of science into the origins of our customs, our social and political systems, our intellectual faiths, have had much to do with the weakening of their authority. We find that in so few cases will the origins bear investigation. To trace an error to its fountain-head, we are told, is to refute it, and by the time that many elements which claim to exercise authority over the minds of men are traced to their source, they are, if not refuted, at any rate left with very little authority. We come to see how much there is of accidental and adventitious in all of our most treasured possessions. What ever they have become under the influence of human elaboration, their sources were low and ignoble. Systems of law and government have grown up from most rude and imperfect beginnings, philosophy runs back into the most crude and vague guesswork, even science springs from the mire of superstition, chemistry is the offspring of alchemy, natural philosophy of magic, astronomy of astrology, and religion is an advanced and purified development of fetishism. The further back we go the more imperfect and barbarous we find the form assumed by all of the elements of our civilisation, and it is the light thrown by scientific inquiry on this imperfection and barbarism which has tended much to the weakening of the empire once exerted by the past over the present. We see how many of the influences which rule our lives and thoughts are mere petrified relics from which life has long departed, old survivals which have lost all meaning and truth and adaptation to the world in which they linger—how, many are old

" Usages thoroughly worn out,
The souls of them fumed forth,
 the hearts of them torn out."

And, seeing all this, we refuse to continue to them the deference and and authority they once enjoyed. We do not abolish them, we are not practical revolutionists, but we retain them only provisionally till we have better arrangements to substitute in their place. 

And another cause, I think, of the vanishing allegiance to the past and the existing is the profound dissatisfaction felt by thinking, feeling men with things as they are. The world for us is marked by all kinds of imperfections, and the old smooth palliatives do not meet with the old acceptance. We are told "everything is for the best," and we ask for proofs, that "whatever is, is right," and we reply that the proposition is an exceedingly doubtful one. We have been too long treated with sugar-coated remedies, and we find them worthless. We have a higher sense of truth—at any rate of reality—than our less resolute predecessors. Words are less to us, and things are more. We wish, at all cost, to look facts in the face. When we do so, we recognise that the world has evil as well as good in its composition. Once we admit that the evils of the world are realities not to be explained away, we then come to adequately discern how great they are. Extending knowledge gives us a wider and deeper view of them, and the sentiment they occasion presses on our spirit with a sense of failure and defeat. The world is for us filled with unsolved problems, and necessity is the sphinx who will devour us if we fail to read the riddle. Seeing as we see, feeling as we feel, the misery, and sorrow, and sin, and waste, and ruin the world contains, we revolt against a state of things of which this is the result. We have nothing to put in its place, but we seek it, and hope it, and expect it. We hope it from change, and from the gifts of the future, and we await these with a pining and wistful impatience. We do not break with the past or with the present, but we refuse to accept them as final, and sit with a vague hope and wait.

Again, the all-pervading influence of the great scientific and philosophical idea of our age—that of evolution—has profoundly undermined the authority of the past over our minds. It has turned our faces in an opposite direction. We have, by the education it has given us, grown to look on every present as a mere stage in the way to a better future. It has exalted the growth which in human matters we call progress to a universal law of nature. It has thrown the whole authority of science and philosophy on the side of change, and has swept utterly away the intellectual conservatism which saw in an iron immobility the safest guarantee of truth and order. It has familiarised our minds with the conception of ceaseless change, of an incessant passing away and replacing of all the forms of life, and has torn the idea of finality up by the roots.
  And with all this, see how much practical conservatism there is side by side with this readiness for the reception of novelty.  We give a welcome and a fair hearing to every new opinion.  So far from holding that the presumption is strongly against novelty, we are full persuaded of the opposite, that, for every practical or theoretical system of science or faith, there is a better on to come. But if we are asked, besides warmly welcoming the new arrival—to adopt it, and reduce it to action—then we hesitate.  For the presumption which we awarded to the side of the new we did not give to any proposal in particular. We have seen the bursting of so many bubbles, the failure of so many infallible remedies, the collapse of so many Utopias.  Like the Pope's Legate in A Soul's Tragedy, we have seen so many revolutions that we do not receive them with the same sense of dawning heaven that we did.  We do not proscribe or persecute our innovators ; they are never now honoured with the martyr's crown : their books are fashionable, and they are deluged with invitations to society ; but as for adopting their schemes, carrying them into practice, staking labour and danger upon them —alas ! we have been so often deceived that we have almost lost the faculty of faith.  And thus the old and the existing regains in practice the authority it has lost in theory, and, with an intellectual passion for novelty, we still change in our outward acts and work very slowly and cautiously.

But still we change ; when not consciously then unconsciously. In our actual life we do not adopt the new so readily as in our mental speculations, but we do adopt it, and the old is always slipping from our grasp. We part from it often with regret, but the regret is one rather of sentiment than conviction. We have ceased to believe in the "good old times," and much rather sympathise with Dickens's bitter denunciations of them as "bad, cruel old times." Every age has, we are satisfied, been on the whole, and regarded as affecting the interests of humanity at large, better than that which it displaced, puzzling as are some of the difficulties which in particular cases this general principle involves. And, as our present is the product of endless innovation upon the past, so we recognise will the future, in a fuller light and clearer day, reconsider and recast everything which we bequeath. With these feelings we are tolerant of proposals for change, and are conscious that change is inevitable, Everything is provisional, and we must hold ourselves as ready to surrender as to receive. We cannot anticipate the difficulties and problems of the future, and we do not believe, because our little systems pass away and cease to be, that the worth and nobility will disappear from human life. Mankind has an infinite faculty of adjustment, and will live as comfortably and as well under the new intellectual conditions as under the old. In the words of a poet who has, perhaps, more fully and profoundly than any other given poetic shape to the intellectual forces and problems of our present day—

" Haply, the river of Time—
As it grows, as the towns on its merge
Fling their wavering lights
On a wider, statelier stream—
May acquire, if not the calm
Of its early mountainous shore,
Yet a solemn peace of its own.

And the width of the waters, the hush
Of the grey expanse where he floats,
Freshening its current and spotted with foam
As it draws to the Ocean, may strike
Peace to the soul of the man on its breast—
As the pale waste widens around him,
As the banks fade dimmer away,
As the stars come out, and the night-wind
Brings up the stream
Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea."


The Australasian 27 March 1880

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