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Modern Society

July 28, 1880 — Hillside Chapel, Concord School of Philosophy, Concord MA


What means this summons, oh friends! to the groves of Academe? I heard, in the distance, the measured tread of Philosophy. I mused: “How grave and deliberate is she! How she matches thought with thought! How patiently she questions inference and conclusion! No irrelevance, no empty ballooning, is allowed in that Concord school. Nothing frivolous need apply there for admission.” And lo! in the midst of this severe entertainment an interlude is called for in the great theatre. The stage manager says, “Ring up Puck. Wanted, an Ariel.” And no Shakespeare being at hand, I, of the sex much reproved for never having produced one, am invited to fly hither as well as my age and infirmities will allow, and to represent to you that airy presence whose folly, seen from the clouds, is wisdom; that presence which, changing with the changes of the year and of the day, may yet sing, equally with the steadfast stars and systematic planets,—

“The hand that made me is divine.”

Modern society, concerning which you have bid me discourse to you, is this tricksy spirit, many-featured and many-gestured, coming in a questionable shape, and bringing with it airs from heaven and blasts from hell. I have spoken to it, and it has shown me my father’s ghost. How shall I speak of it, and tell you what it has taught me? You must think my alembic a nice one indeed, since you bid me to the analysis of those subtle and finely mingled forces. You have sent for me, perhaps, to receive a lesson instead of giving one. You may intend that, having tried and failed in this task, I shall learn, for the future, the difficult lesson of holding my peace. For so benevolent, so disinterested an intention, I may have more occasion to thank you beforehand, than you shall find to thank me, having heard me.

But, since a text is supposed to make it sure that the sermon shall have in it one good sentence, let me take for my text a saying of the philosopher Kant, who, in one of his treatises, rests much upon the distinction to be made between logical and real or substantial opposition. According to him, a logical opposition is brought in view when one attribute of a certain thing is at once affirmed and denied. The statement of a body which should be at once stationary and in motion would imply such a contradiction, of which the result will be nihil negativum irrepræsentabile.

A real or substantial opposition is found where two contradictory predicates are recognized as coexistent in the same subject. A body impelled in one direction by a given force, and in another by its opposite, is easily cogitable. One force neutralizes the other, but the result is something, viz., rest. Let us keep in mind this distinction between opposites which exclude each other, and opposites which can coexist, while we glance at the contradictions of all society, ancient as well as modern.

How self-contradictory, in the first place, is the nature of man! How sociable he is! also how unsociable! We have among animals the gregarious and the solitary. But man is of all animals at once the most gregarious and the most solitary. This is the first and most universal contradiction, that of which you find at least the indication in every individual. But let us look for a moment at the contrasts which make one individual so unlike to another. We sometimes find it hard to believe the saying that God hath made of one blood all the nations of the earth. This in view of the contrast between savage and civilized nations, or between nations whose habits and beliefs differ one from the other. In the same race, in the same family also, we shall find the unlikeness which seems to set the bond of nature at defiance.

See this sly priest, bland and benevolent in proportion to the narrow limits of the minds which he controls. He hears the shrift of the brigand and assassin, of the girl mastered by passion, of the unfaithful wife and avenging husband. He gives an admonition, perhaps a grave one. He inflicts a penance, light or severe. He does not trust his penitents with the secret which can heal the plague-sores of humanity,—the secret of its moral power. But see the meek flock who come to him. See the whole range of consciences which cannot rest without his dismissing fiat. The rugged peasant drops on his knees beside the confessional. His horny palm relinquishes, without hesitation, the coin upon which it has scarcely closed. Or here alights from her carriage some woman of the world, bright in silks and jewels. With a hush and a rustle, reaching the lowly bench, she, too, drops down, rehearses her wrong-doing, promises such reparation as is enjoined, and asks for the word of peace. Now this confessor, and one or more of his penitents, may be the children of the same father and mother, and yet they shall be as unlike in attitude and in character as two human beings can be. In the closest alliance of blood you may thus find the opposite poles of one humanity.

Humanity is, then, a thing of oppositions, and of oppositions which are polar and substantial. Its contradictions do not exclude, but, on the contrary, complement each other, and the action and reaction of these contradictions result in the mighty agreements of the State and of the Church, the intense sympathies and antipathies which bind or sunder individuals, the affections and disaffections of the family.

The opposite extremes of human nature embrace, between them, a wonderful breadth and scope. The correlation and coaction of this multitude of opposing forces on the wide arena of the world naturally give rise to a series of manifestations, voluntary and involuntary, changeful in form and color as a phantasmagoria, fitful as a fever-dream, but steadfast and substantial in the infinite science, out of which all things come. The unity in this web of contradictions is its great wonder. How if this unity prove to be the law of which the oppositions are but one clause? How if the perfect unity were only attainable through the freedom of the natural diversity? And what is the substance and sum of this fundamental agreement? The desire of good, the progressive conception of which marks, more than anything else, the progress of the race. We cannot tell out of what dynamics comes the initial of this fruitful and productive opposition. It is, perhaps, the very unity of the object which develops the diversity of action. In the progress of human society the diversity becomes constantly multiplied. Is the sense of the unity lost in consequence? No, it grows constantly with the growth of this opposing fact. As education is enlarged, as freedom becomes more general and entire, the agreement of mankind becomes greater in the objects to be attained for the promotion of their best interests.

We can suppose a family cast upon a barren shore, or forced to sit down in the midst of an uninhabited region. All of its members will wish ]to secure the necessary conditions of life, such as food, fuel, shelter, safety from destructive agencies. If left to themselves, one will naturally bestir himself to find fish, game, or fruits; another will bring in firewood; a third will plan a tent or hut; a fourth will stand sentry against any possible alarm. So a camp is a world in miniature; and if food and drink be plenty, and there be time to think of recreation, some one will carve a pipe from reed or willow, and, in answer to the piping, will come the dance. Or, if our pilgrims are too mystic and solemn for this, hymns will be sung, and the voice of prayer will lift the soul out of the poverty of its surroundings into that realm of imagination whose wealth far exceeds that of Ormus or of Ind.

I seem to hear at this point the non placet of those who ask for one thing and receive another. I was not sent for to philosophize, but to represent; and, with regard to the former process, “how not to do it” should have been my study. Modern society is my theme. Where shall I find society for you? Henry Thoreau found it here, in the passionless face of Nature. Here, the shy Hawthorne could dwell unmolested, not even overshadowed by the revered sage who makes reserve and distance such important elements of good manners. Mr. Alcott has transplanted here those olives whose sacred chrism rests upon his honored brow. The society which my words shall introduce here must be neither vulgar nor dull.

Now, if I had a flying-machine! Well, I have one, and its name is Memory. Sit with me, upon its movable platform, and I will give you some peeps at the thing itself, leaving you to discuss after me its raison d’être, its right to be. In experimental analysis, specimens are always exhibited. Let us look at modern society in Cairo, Shepherd’s hotel, and the omnibus that bears one thither. The table d’hôte unites a catalogue as various as that of Don Giovanni. Here sit Sir Samuel and Lady Baker, famous as African explorers. You may all know something of the entertaining volumes which chronicle their discoveries and adventures. Lady Baker wears, at times, a necklace made of tiger’s claws. Her husband shot the tiger in the great wilds of Africa, she loading the gun with which he did it.

She is Roumanian by birth, English by adoption, fair and comely. Sir Samuel is a burly Briton. They have with them a young African servant, dark and under-sized, with wild, crimped hair. Sir Samuel tells me that this is altogether the best human creature he ever knew. Lady Baker does not resent the extreme statement. I sit at table between a Russian count and an English baronet. The Russian and his two daughters are amiable and simple people. The baronet is a stanch Tory, as you will think natural when you hear his story. He was once a poor boy, hard at work in a coal mine. He used to walk six or seven miles daily, after working hours, in order to acquaint himself with those three Fates who are familiarly called the three R’s. Becoming an expert in the coal business, he went through the upward grades of his profession, became a large owner of mines, and has now a heavy contract for supplying the Egyptian government with coal. He is a member of Parliament, and, when I saw him, was ready to start homeward on the first news of a division in the House. It was lately stated in a London paper that Lord Beaconsfield would probably raise him to the peerage before his own retirement from office. So, it may have been done by this time.

My Russian neighbors are much troubled about the fate of a poor Italian family whose chief has lost his occupation, and which is thus reduced to the extreme of want. “Why not get up a subscription at this hotel?” say I. They are very willing that I should. I draw up a paper, we sign our names and contributions. Sir George snubs us dreadfully, but gives us a sovereign. Sir Samuel snubs, and gives nothing. The necessary sum of money is raised, and the family is sent to its own country. Here, you see, are Russia, England, and America, combining, on Egyptian soil, to save Italy. This strange mixture is characteristic of the medley of the time.

We will not move yet, for the panorama of the table will save us that trouble. Here is one of the recognized beauties of London society. A very pretty woman, with dewy eyes, pearly teeth, dark, glossy hair, and a soft, fresh complexion. A French wardrobe sets off those natural advantages, with its happy disguises and apposite revelations. But it is not good for beauty that it should become a profession. This lady’s fine eyes and teeth are made to do duty with such evident persistence of intention, that one absolutely dreads to see the glitter of the one and the flash of the other in the gymnastic of an advertised flirtation.

I cannot yet release you. Here are two gentlemen who wear the tarbouche with their European ]costume. They were rebels in our war of secession, and at its close took service with the Khedive. Ignoring ancient sectional differences, they are very cordial with us, their countrywomen. They would be glad to see their country again, but cannot get their salaries paid, the French and English commissioners having taken the direction of Egyptian finances, and making no allowance for the past services of these American officers, who were dismissed at their instance.

We are still at Shepherd’s table d’hôte, and before us sit an English nobleman and his wife, who have obtained permission to give a fête at the Pyramids. A gay party of English residents and visitors are gathering to accompany them, and presently the carriages and cavalcade start, with a band of music, and a small army of servants. They illuminate the Great Pyramid with colored fires, race their horses and donkeys through the desert, sup and sleep in the Khedive’s kiosk, not without much boisterous mirth and disturbance.

Or, behold me on Bairam day, paying a New-Year’s visit to the harem of the Khedive. A row of grinning eunuchs, black as night, guard the entrance. After various turns of ceremonial, we greet the three princesses, all wives of the Khedive, who has many others not of this rank. In order not to give offence, we are obliged to smoke the chibouque, a pipe about five feet in length. We smile and courtesy at the proper moment, but find conversation difficult. They are curious to hear where we came from, and whither we are going. I ask whether they, also, enjoy travelling, and am reminded that their institutions do not allow it. These poor princesses little knew that in two months from that time an involuntary journey awaited them, on the occasion of the Khedive’s abdication, and departure from the country.

We please ourselves, in these days, with the praise of Islamism, and think, quite rightly, that Mahomet and his Koran had their raison d’être, and have done their part for mankind. But here is Islamism in modern society. The howling dervishes sit on the ground groaning Allah, Allah. By and by they rise, and bend their heads backward and forward until the most eminent among them fall in fits, and are taken up in an unhappy condition. Within a short distance from our hotel, we hear of a company of men met for a religious exercise. One of them chews a glass goblet and swallows it. Another endeavors to swallow a small snake. A third gashes himself wildly with a sword. These are religious enthusiasts. If their faith be genuine, these dangerous experiments, they say, can do them no harm.

These things remind us of the temptation of Christ: “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence.”

But let us leave the city and hotel, and betake ourselves to the historic river, dumb with all its mouths, and poor with all its wealth. Modern society is well represented on board our steamer. Here are two Californian gentlemen, two sons of a Sandwich Island missionary, two or three Italians. Here is a sister-in-law of John Bright. She has visited Alaska, and considers this Nile trip a small parenthesis in her voyage round the world. Here are an English couple, belonging to fashionable life. Here is a clergyman of the same nation, who glories in the fact that Dr. Johnson hated, or said he hated, a Whig. Here is an American who cannot visit the ruins because his whole day is divided into so many glasses of milk, to be taken at such and such times.

We land one day at Assiout, and visit its bazaars. The trade in ostrich feathers is brisk, the natives steadily raising their prices as the demand increases, until we find that the feathers might be more cheaply bought in London or Paris. Amid the general confusion of tongues I am accosted by a handsome youth, cleanly and civil, who speaks fair English, and asks if he can serve me.

Who are you? A pupil of the American Mission School in this place. He brings two of his fellow-pupils to speak with me. One of these is a girl, whose innocent, uncovered face seems to rebuke the hidden faces of the Arab women, veiled and disfigured to evince their modesty, but making more evident the immodesty of the men.

We return to our steamer, followed by a crowd of boys and girls, shrieking and naked, who plunge into the water to get the backshish, which some of our party throw them. On the bank stand two beautiful youths, nearly black, with eyes like sloes, and with crisped hair standing erect like a flame above their foreheads. They are clad in kilts of white cotton cloth. Struck with their beauty, we inquire of what tribe they are. “Of the Bischouri,” says our dragoman, “a tribe of the desert, who feed only upon uncooked grain.” To the last their bright smile pursues us with its pathos. Would that they, too, were pupils of the American Mission School. Would not our vegetarian chief send for them?

We gallop across the sands to a point opposite Philæ, and reach the sacred spot by boat. We picnic among its tombs, climb its pylon, and remark upon the beauty of the view. At the first cataract, which is very near this place, an Arab woman shows me her baby with the pride of Eve or Queen Victoria. It has a nose-ring of brass wire, and similar adornments in the top of each ear. On my way back to the boat, my pocket is picked by a cunning youth. The Arabs of the desert will compare in this respect with the Arabs of European streets. A little Arab girl offers to sell me her rag doll, whose veil is bedizened with spangles. A little water-carrier, proud of her English, says, “Lady, give me backshish.”

This shall end my peep at modern society in Egypt.

But one more personal remembrance you must accord me. The scene is a dirty, muddy street in a Cyprus seaport. The time is not far from noon. I am exploring, with some curiosity, the new jewel which Lord Beaconsfield has added to the crown of Great Britain.

What a mean, poor bazaar is this; what dull streets, what a barren place to live in, especially since methymenic Albion has drunk up all the best of the wine! I pass a shop, and a bright presence beams out upon me. It is Lady Baker, with her fair, luminous face, full of energy and resource. Sir Samuel, she tells me, is in the back shop buying hardware for a hard journey. For they intend to travel through the island in a huge covered wagon, drawn by oxen, which will be to them at once vehicle and hotel. Where they went, and how they fared, I know not, nor would it here import us, if I did. I only mention the appearance of these friends in this place, because this appearance was so characteristic of modern society, and because so many of its elements appeared there in their persons. The education and high society of England, the court, the literary circles, the almighty publisher, for an intended volume was surely looming in the foreground of their picture. And here I have clearly got hold of one feature of modern society; this is, that everything is everywhere. The Zulus are in London, the Londoners in Zululand. Empress Eugenie, the exploded star of French fashion in its highest supremacy, visits Cape Town. The stars and stripes protect American professors on the shores of the Bosphorus, within view of Mount Lebanon. It would not surprise us to learn that a party of our countrymen had read the Declaration of Independence beside the Pools of Solomon, or within the desolate heart of Moab.

In Jaffa of the Crusaders, Joppa of Peter and Paul, I find an American Mission School, kept by a worthy lady from Rhode Island. Prominent among its points of discipline is the clean-washed face which is so enthroned in the prejudices of Western civilization. One of her scholars, a youth of unusual intelligence, finding himself clean, observes himself to be in strong contrast with his mother’s hovel, in which filth is just kept clear of fever point. “Why this dirt?” quoth he; “that which has made me clean, will cleanse this also.” So without more ado, the process of scrubbing is applied to the floor, without regard to the danger of so great a novelty. This simple fact has its own significance, for if the innovation of soap and water can find its way to a Jaffa hut, where can the ancient, respectable, conservative dirt-devil feel himself secure? 

The maxim also becomes vain nowadays, that there should be a place for everything, and that everything should be in its place. Cleopatra’s Needles point their moral in London and in New York. The Prince of Wales hunts tigers in the Punjaub. Hyde Park is in the desert or on the Nile. America is all over the world. Against this universal game of “Puss in the Corner,” reaction must come, some day, in some shape, or anywhere will mean nowhere, for those who, starting in the geographical pursuit of pleasure, fail to find it and never return home.

The oppositions of humanity have undergone many changes. Paul characterized them in his day as “Greek and Barbarian, bond and free, male and female.” Christianity effaced old oppositions and created new ones. The old oppositions were national, personal, selfish. The new opposition was moral. It struck at evils, not at men, and tended to unite the latter in a patient and reasonable overcoming of the former. I know that the white heat at which its first blow was dealt left much for philosophy to elaborate, for science to adjust and apply. A Jesus, arrived at the plenitude of his intellectual vigor, could only have three years in which to formulate his weighty doctrine, and could not have had these without much care and hindrance. His work lay in the normal direction of human nature. In spite of lapses and relapses, mankind slowly creep towards the great unification which will make the savage animals and the selfish passions the only enemies of the human race. Modern society rests upon this unification as its basis of action. A positive philosophy which Auguste Comte did not elaborate absorbs its highest thought, and dictates its largest measures.

And so prophetic souls bid farewell to the old negations. In their view, the lion is already reconciled to the lamb. The taming of the elements prefigures the general reconciliation. The deadly lightning runs on errands and carries messages. The Titan steam is the servant of commerce and industry, meek as Hercules when armed with the distaff of Omphale. Emulation, the desire to excel, exquisite, dangerous stimulant to exertion, is not in our day educated to the intensification of self, but to the enlargement of public spirit and of general interest. The constant discoveries of new treasures in our material world, of gold, silver, iron, and copper, of states to be built up and of harvests to be sown and reaped, are accompanied by corresponding discoveries concerning the variety of human gifts and their application to useful ends. What men and women can be good for may be more voluminously stated to-day than in any preceding age of the world’s history.

Comparison should be a strong point in modern society. When travelling was laborious and difficult, the masses of one country knew little concerning those of another. When learning was rare, and instruction costly and insufficient, the few knew the secrets of thought and science, the many not even knowing that such things were to be known. When wealth was uncommon, luxury was monopolized by a small class, the greater part of mankind earning only for themselves the right to live poorly. When distinctions were absolute, low life knew nothing of high life but what the novelist could invent, or the servant reveal. How changed is all this to-day! Competence, travel, tuition, and intelligent company are within the reach of all who will give themselves the trouble to attain them. The first consequence of this is that we become able to make the largest and most general comparison of human conditions which has ever been possible to humanity, nor does this ability regard the present alone. The unveiling of the treasures of the past, the interpretation of its experience and doctrine which we owe to the scholar and archæologist, enable us to compare remote antiquity with the things of the last minute. The work of antiquarian science culminates in the discovery of the prehistoric man. Theology had long before invented the post-historic angel. Now, indeed, we ought to be able to choose the best out of the best, since the whole is laid in order before us. But the chronic trouble hangs upon us still. Had we but such wisdom to choose as we have chance to see! The gifts of our future are still shown us in sealed caskets. Which of these conceals the condition of our true happiness? The leaden one, surely, of which we distrust the dull exterior, trusting in the inner brightness which it covers.

What is the problem of modern society?

How to use its vast resources. Here is where the office of true ethic comes in. No gift can make rich those who are poor in wisdom. The wealth which should build up society will pull it down if its possession lead to fatal luxury and indulgence. The freedom of intercourse which makes one nation known to another, and puts the culture of the most advanced at the service of the most barbarous, is like a flood which carries everywhere the seeds of good and of evil. The ripening of these depends much upon the accident of the human soil they may happen to find. But careful husbandry will have even more to do with the result.

To America it was said at the outset, “Prepare to receive the World, and to make it free.” Oh, World, so full of corruption and of slavery, wilt thou not rather bind us with thy gangrenous fetters? Wilt not the wail of thy old injustice and suffering prolong itself until the new strophe of hope shall be lost and forgotten?

Where is God’s image in this human brute who lands on our shores, full only of the insolence of beggary? Far, far be from us ever the methods and procedures which have made or left him what he is. Honor and glory to those patient, good men and women who will redeem his children from the degradation which seems almost proper to him. Theirs be a crown above that of the poet or orator!

Modern society, then, is chiefly occupied with a vast assimilation of novelties. This task is by no means imposed upon us alone. While the New World has to digest races and traditions, the Old World has to digest ideas. Thanks to the good Puritan stomach which we inherit, the process goes on here, with little interruption. But across the seas, in Rome, in Germany, in Russia, what nausea, what quarrelling with the fatal morsel upon which Providence compels the lips to close!

“Non possumus!” say the priests of the old order. “Possum,” replies the eternal power. The French republic and the English monarchy succeed best in this altering of old habits to suit new emergencies. But where extremes are greatest, the contest is naturally fiercest. A Pope fears the cup of poisoned chocolate, and dares not drink the wine of the eucharist without a taster; the throne of the Russian autocrat is over the deadly mine of the Nihilist. German vanity and diplomacy bring back the shadow of the mediæval muddle. The living heart’s blood of humanity comes to us out of these struggles, an immeasurable gift, for good or for evil. Can we be quick enough with our schools, just enough in our government, sincere and devout enough in our churches? What will Europe do with the ideas? What will America do with the people? These are the questions of the present time. 

One of the serious social questions of the day is the omnipotence of money. People often use this expression in a quasi sarcastic sense, not seriously intending what they say. But the power of money nowadays is such that it becomes us seriously to ask whether there is anything that it cannot do. What ancient strongholds of taste, sentiment, and prejudice has it not stormed and carried?

A servant, who sought a place during the first years of the shoddy inflation, asked a lady who was willing to engage her, “Are you shoddy, ma’am, or old family? I want to live with shoddy, because it pays the highest wages.” The watchwords of society as often come from its humbler as from its higher level, and this woman unconsciously uttered the word which was to rule society from that time to this. Money, during the last twenty years, has swept over most of the old landmarks, and obliterated them.

Religion itself stands aghast at this baptism of gold, which can convert the alien and the heathen, ay, the brigand and the robber, into saints of social prestige. For money bribes the court and pulpit, and buys the press; the highest rank, the highest genius, pay homage to it. If the duke has not money, he will seek in wedlock the most undesirable of women, if she be also the richest. Royalty bows to the splendid cloak of vulgarity, and invites it to dine and drive. Happy day, you will say, for labor, which money symbolizes. Monarchs may well show it respect. But money does not always symbolize honest and intelligent industry. A great fortune often represents transactions akin to theft; sometimes the thing itself, which the world is Spartan enough to approve of, if the criminal can only escape positive detection. Those, too, who have earned their money honestly, leave it to children who turn their back upon the class of which their parents came, and desire to know nothing of the bread-winning arts which they were constrained to practise.

We have had, within the last ten years, a severe lesson concerning the instability of wealth in some of its most trusted forms. Yet are we not compelled by sympathy and antipathy, at the bottom of our hearts, to pay it an homage which our lips would not avow? Do we not desire wealth for our children as the condition which shall set our minds at rest concerning them? When we see mediocrity and vulgarity riding in the swift carriage, and wearing the jewels and the robes, bright in everybody’s eyes and praised in everybody’s mouth, do we not harbor somewhere a regret that we have not, in some way possible to us, set our best abilities to work to secure a similar distinction for ourselves?

It should not frighten one to see the court and its underlings venal. Court and courtiers are a show, and money is the condition by which a show lives. But I look into the domain of letters, and ask whether that is still uncorrupted. I do not think that it is. The refined tastes of literary people lead them to value entertainment at the hands of the rich. The luxurious rooms, the abundant table, the easy persiflage in which worldly tact knows enough to flatter recognized talent. Do not these illicebræ seduce, to-day, even the stern heart of philosophy?

How unkind was society to Margaret Fuller! It was reluctant to show her the courtesy due to a gentlewoman. Its mean gossip treated her as if she had been beyond the pale of elegance and good taste, verging away even from good behavior. What was her offence against society? A humanity too large and absorbing, a mind too brave and independent for its commonplace. Add to these the fact that she had neither fashion nor fortune. The things she asked for are granted to-day by every thinking mind, and she is remembered as illustrious. But if she could come back to-morrow as she was, poor in purse and plain in person, and assume her old leadership, would Boston treat her any better than it did in days of yore? Would she not find, even among Brook farmers, a looking toward Beacon Street which might surprise her? The literary man, who went so bravely from abstract philosophy to its concrete expression, whose learned hands took up the spade and hoe, and whose early peas were praised by those who contemned his principles, would he, at a later day, — grown urbane and fashionable, — would he have bowed without a pang to his former self, if he had met him, dusty and on foot, in Central Park, he himself being well mounted?

I said just now that money could buy the press. This is shameful, because the press, more than any other power, can afford to be frank and sincere. Freedom is the very breath of life in its nostrils, yet is it to-day largely salaried by the enemies of freedom. While speaking of the press, I will mention the regret with which I lately read, in the “Boston Daily Advertiser,” an editorial treating of the expulsion of the Jesuits from France. The writer, who denounced this measure with some severity, described the religious body with which it deals as a band of mild and inoffensive men, chiefly occupied with the tuition of youth. He might as well have characterized a tiger as a harmless creature, incapable of the use of firearms.

To me the worship of wealth means, in the present, the crowning of low merit with undeserved honor,—the setting of successful villany above unsuccessful virtue. It means absolute neglect and isolation for the few who follow a high heart’s love through want and pain, through evil and good report. It means the bringing of all human resources, material and intellectual, to one dead level of brilliant exhibition—a second Field of the Cloth of Gold — to show that the barbaric love of splendor still lives in man, with the thirst for blood, and other quasi animal passions. It means, in the future, some such sad downfall as Spain had when the gold and silver of America had gorged her soldiers and nobles; something like what France experienced after Louis XIV. and XV. I am no prophet, and, least of all, a prophet of evil; but where, oh where, shall we find the antidote to this metallic poison? Perhaps in the homœig;opathic principle of cure. When the money miracle shall be complete, when the gold Midas shall have turned everything to gold, then the human heart will cry for flesh and blood, for brain and muscles. Then shall manhood be at a premium, and money at a discount.

The French have found, among many others, one fortunate expression. They speak of a life of representation, by which they mean the life of a person conspicuous in the great world. This society of representation has some recognition in every stage of civilization, since even nations which we consider barbarous have their festivals and processions. The ministerial balls in Paris, and perhaps many other entertainments in that city, are of this character.

The guests are admitted in virtue of a card, which is really a ticket, though money cannot command it. Many of the persons entertained are not personally acquainted with either host or hostess, and do not necessarily make their acquaintance by going to their house. Everything is arranged with a view to large effects: music, decorations, supper, etc. A party of friends may go there for their own amusement, or a single individual for his own. But there are no general introductions given, there is no social fusion. 

Now this I call society of representation. It bears about the same relation to genuine society that scene-painting bears to a carefully finished picture. People of culture and education enjoy a peep at this spectacular drama of the social stage, but their idea of society would be something very different from this. Where this show-society monopolizes the resources of a community, it implies either a dearth of intellectual resources, or a great misapprehension of what is really delightful and profitable in social intercourse.

Where the stage form of society predominates too largely, its intimate form languishes and declines. The communings of a chosen few around a table simply spread, with no view to the recognition of the great Babylon, but rather with a pleasure in its avoidance; refined sympathy and support given and received in a round of daily duties, by those whose hands are busy and whose minds are full; the inner sweetness of a beautiful song or poem, the kindling of mind from mind, till all become surprised at what each can do,—this sort of society maintains itself by keeping the noisy rush of the crowd at arm’s length. Horace says,—

“Odo profanum vulgus et arceo,” 

and I, a democrat of the democrats, will say so too. I reverence the masses of mankind, rich or poor. My heart beats high when I think of the good which human society has already evolved, and of the greater good which is in store for those who are to come after us. But I hate the profane vulgarity which courts public notice and mention as the chief end of existence, and which, in so doing, puts out of sight those various ends and interests which each generation is bound to pursue for itself, and to promote for its successors.

The time of poor Marie Antoinette was the culmination of such a period of show. Its glare and glitter, and its lavish waste, had put out of sight the true and intimate relations of man to man. And so, as the gilded portion of the age made its musters of beautiful empty heads, of vanities throned upon vanities, the ungilded part made its deadly muster of discontent, displeasure, and despair. The empty heads fell, and much that was precious and noble fell with them. The great stage produced its bloody drama, and the curtain of horror closed upon it.

Critics of society usually direct their invective against the extravagance and shallowness of this exhibitory department, and would almost make these an excuse for the opposite extreme of misanthropic spleen and avoidance. They should remember that while society, from an inward necessity, provides for these musterings and displays, it is unable to provide for that intimate and personal intercourse which individuals must found and cultivate for themselves. So much is left for each one of us to do, to find our peers, and open with them an honest exchange of our best for their best. The family most easily begins this, with its intense and ever-enlarging interests. Out of true family life comes a neighborhood; out of a neighborhood the body politic, and the body sympathetic.

If, in the matter of social intercourse, show is allowed to usurp the place of substance, the indolence of mankind must bear its part of the blame. It is far easier to order a suit for the great occasion, than to brighten one’s mental jewels for the small one. Many a soldier is brave on parade, who would not shine on a field of battle. Many a woman will pass for elegant in a ball-room, or even at a court drawing-room, whose want of true breeding would become evident in a chosen company.

The reason why education is usually so poor among women of fashion is, that it is not needed for the life which they elect to lead. With a good figure, good clothes, and a handsome equipage, with a little reading of the daily papers, and of the fashionable reviews, and above all, with the happy tact which often enables women to make a large display of very small acquirements, the woman of fashion may never feel the need of true education. We pity her none the less, since she will never know its peace and delight.

In our own country, at this moment, and in Europe as well, ambitions seem to be unduly directed to this department of social action, the training and discipline for which differ widely from that proper to intimate and domestic life. Hence comes an observable regard, not to appearances only, but to appearance. As actors often paint their faces too highly for near effects, in order to look well at the farthest point of view, so the dress and manners of the day fit themselves for the stage of the great world, and their wearers seem to meditate not only what will not appear amiss, but what will attract attention by some singularity of becoming effect. Hence the supremacy for the time of those whose calling it is to minister to appearance. The tailor has long been a man of destiny, but the modern plainness of male attire has somewhat sobered his pretensions. But look at the sublime arrogance of the ladies’ dressmaker, and the almost equally sublime meekness of the victim, who not only submits, but desires to be as wax in her hands. This supreme functionary has, of course, carte blanche for her ordinances. The subject says to her, “Do what you will with me. Make me modest or immodest. Tie up my feet or straighten my arms till use of them becomes impossible. Deprive my figure of all drapery, or upholster it like a window-frame. Nay, set me in the centre of a movable tent, but array me so that people shall look at me, and shall say I look well.”

I cannot but hate, to-day, the slavish fashion which seems to have been invented in order to intensify that self-consciousness which is the worst enemy of beauty. It is administered by means of a system of lacets and whalebones, which everywhere impinge upon nature. A young lady who is in her dress like a sword in its scabbard (the French name for the fashion is fourreau), is made to think of this point, and of that, until her whole gait and movement become an interrogation of her silks and elastics. Can I sit? Can I walk? Can I put this foot forward, or lift this hand to my head? Ask the satin strait-jacket in which your artist has imprisoned you, receiving high compensation for the service. Much as I resent this constraint and restraint of the body, my saddest thought is, that where it is endured the mind has first been enslaved.

Foreign travel is so established a feature in American life, that it may well become us to take account of what it costs and comes to.

Our own importation of men and women is various and enormous. They who come to us poor and ignorant in one generation, are seen comfortable and well educated in the next. The disfranchised and landless man comes to us, and receives political rights, and the title of a farm in fee simple. No inordinate tribute robs him of the product of his industry, be it large or small. He pays to the State what it pays him well to afford, for protection and education. But how is it with the tribute which Europe levies upon us in the shape of our sons and daughters?

Many polite tastes have, no doubt, been fostered in our young men by studies pursued in a German university, or art learned in a French studio. Some of the best scholars of the elder generation have profited, in their youth, by such advantages. But if we go beyond the limits of literary or professional life, we may not consider the results so fortunate. Our society-men sometimes become so depolarized in their tastes and feelings, as to be at ease nowhere but in Europe, and not much at ease there. Those who return bring back a love of betting and of horse-racing, and ape the display of European grandees as far as their fortunes will allow.

And our young women? Some of them study soberly abroad, and return to give their countenance and support to all that is improving and refining in their own country. Some float hither and thither, between England and Italy, like a feather on the wave, disappearing at last. The Daisy Millerish chit is seen, offending in pure ignorance of what common-sense should easily teach mothers and daughters.

Family groups of Americans are often met with in Europe, in which one figure is wanting. This is the father, absent, in America, working at his business or speculation. These ladies are often companionable people, who enjoy good hotels, galleries, music on the public square, and, above all, the sensation of being far from home.

One feels about them a dreary atmosphere of homelessness. As the writer of the Potiphar papers, while watching a gay young mother’s performance in the “German,” was constrained to think of a complaining babe in her nursery, so, in hearing those ladies boast of their enjoyments, one cannot help remembering with commiseration the wifeless husband and daughterless father at home, who works like a steam-fan to keep these butterflies in motion.

More sad still are my reflections, when I hear that numbers of American girls, with large or even moderate fortunes, go abroad and allow it to be known that they seek a husband with a title. These are to be had, of various grades, if the pecuniary consideration be only sufficient. And so many of our laborious men of business work hard in order to earn for themselves the luxury of a titled son-in-law, who has not the ability to earn his own support, and would scorn to do it if he had.

American women with money are at a premium in fashionable Europe. Even without this supreme merit, they are favorites. A London journal calls attention to the fact that some of the leading ladies in the fashionable London of to-day are Americans. The versatility of mind and ease of manner which a free and social life develops, appear in strong contrast with the results of the more formal education, which are often seen in the opposite extremes of timidity and assurance.

As our young men are often entrapped, while abroad, into marriages which prove to be very unwise and unsuitable, I wish very much that we might bring and keep our young people in a better understanding with each other, so that even the most ambitious among them should be content to marry with their peers, and abide in the home of their fathers.

I have been surprised, at some periods of my late visit to Europe, to perceive the growing interest of thinking people in all that is most characteristic of American progress. Again and again, in private and in public, I have found myself invited to discourse concerning the happy country in which popular education has been so long established, that its results are no longer putative, but ascertained and verified. The country in which the fairest woman, provided she be a modest one, can walk abroad by day or night, unmolested and unsuspected, the country in which women have acquired the courage to think for themselves, and to stand by each other.

These invitations, though not given in derision, yet seemed akin to the Hebrew refrain, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” And when I related the facts familiar to all of us, to those who listened with half-incredulous wonder, it was, indeed, like singing the Lord’s song of freedom in a strange land.

The reasons why Europe should come to America are obvious and pressing. The reasons why America should visit Europe are equally binding and cogent. The material and the moral life of to-day are kept at their height by this flux and reflux of human personality, which carries with it every variety of opinion and experience. Could we only send our best abroad, and for the best reasons! Could Europe only send her best, also, for their best help and study! But the human average profits first of all by its material enlargement, and will be received just as it is. So, our fools go abroad, to show that folly is a thing of all times and climes; and, along with the tidal wave of ignorance and bigotry, the dark, designing Jesuit seeks our shore, and spins his fatal web among our rose-trees. Sun of divine truth, storms of divine justice, sweep away the evil and ripen the good!

When I see an American of either sex caught in the vortex of European attraction, depolarized from natural relations, and charmed into alliance with feudal barbarism and ignorance, my heart rings the bell of alarm which is hung at the gates of Paradise.

From all these Western splendors can this shallow soul turn away? From these golden fields whose overflow gives Europe food, while her human overflow gives them labor? From this large construction of human right, which lifts the cruel yoke from the neck of labor, and gives him who earns the livelihood of many his own life to enjoy and perfect? From this holy record of pious endeavor, from these splendid achievements of souls inspired by freedom, thou canst go, joyous and triumphant, to pay homage to the lies which are no longer believed by those who profess them; lies whose fallacy America exposes every day and hour to the detection of the world.

Thou wilt accept a title, empty as an egg-shell, for a thing truly noble! Thou wilt call a courtier’s grimace polite, a courtesan’s fashion elegant! Thou wilt curry favor in a vulgar court, courtesying low to a prince of harlequins and harlots! Thou, child of the Puritans, wilt kneel and kiss the hand which, still and sole, disputes with Christ the mastery of the world! Then art thou simply an anachronism! Some are born into the world centuries before their time, some centuries after it.

Other attractions, innocent in themselves, and conceivable to all, detain some of our valued fellow-citizens in perpetual exile. The quiet and beauty of English country-life, the literary and artistic resources of a foreign capital, the romances of ancient chateaux and cathedrals, some delicious touch of climate, some throbbing beauty of a southern sky. How delightful we have found these, it is as much a pain as a pleasure to remember! But let us also call to mind the lesson of a well-known fairy tale. While Beauty prolongs her absence, the faithful Beast languishes and comes nigh unto death. While we enjoy these choice delights, the society to which we belong is sowing its wheat and its tares. We are far from the field in which the life of our own generation is planted and tended. Every honest heart, every thinking mind, has its value in the community to which it belongs. Our value, such as it is, remains wanting to our community, and, when its crises of trial shall come, we shall not have been trained by watchful experience to understand either their cause or their remedy.

How delightful was Italy to Milton! His Allegro and Pensieroso show that he could fully appreciate both its mirth and its majesty. He returns not the less to live out a life of illustrious service in his own country, where his brave heart and philosophic mind were of more avail to his time than even his sacred song to ours.

No one has any reason to be surprised at any new manifestation of human folly. Yet I am sometimes surprised, to-day, by the disrespect which is often shown to the word “Protestant.” This name dates, at farthest, from the time of Luther, but the fact for which it stands is as old as human history. Moses made a protest when he led his people out of the luxury and slavery of Egypt to find the free hills of Judæa, and to build on one of them a temple to the God of freedom. Christ made His protest against the hypocrisy and injustice of the old social and ecclesiastical order. England and France have made their protests against monarchical supremacy. Both went back from their daring determination, but the lesson was not forgotten. The Puritans made their protest when they faced the frowning sea and the savage wilderness, in order that they might train their children, and live themselves in the freedom which conscience asks. Mr. Garrison and his associates made their protest against American slavery. Mrs. Butler, of England, makes her protest to-day against the personal degradation of women. Lucy Stone makes hers against their political enslavement.

Does society inherit? Is man the heir of man? Whence come those creatures of the present day who smile, and shrug their shoulders, and feebly say, “We don’t protest. Our fathers did something of the kind, upon what ground we cannot possibly imagine. But we are quite of another sort. We don’t protest.”

To those courageous souls which, alone and unaided, have been able to face the world’s passion and inertia,—to those leaders of forlorn hopes who have seen glory in the depths of death and have sought it there, — to those voices proclaiming in the wilderness the triumphant progress of truth,—to those brave spirits whose strength the fires of hell have annealed, not consumed,—my soul shall ever render its glad and duteous homage. And if, in my later age, I might seek the crowning honor of my life, I should seek it with that small, faithful band who have no choice but to utter their deepest conviction, and abide its issues. Fruitful shall be their pains and privations. They who have sown in tears the seeds of unpopular virtue, shall reap its happy harvest in the good and gratitude of mankind.



Source: Modern Society, by Julia Ward Howe, (Boston: Roberts Brothers), 1881, pp. 5-49.