Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The End of the World

The doctrines of popular theology are, for the most part, closely connected with the permanent wants and inclinations of human nature. People bring to the Bible a great part of what they find in it; and it is usually safe to infer, from the fact that vast consequences are drawn from a few scattered and mysterious indications, the conclusion that there is something in mankind which suggests those consequences independently of revelation. This is well illustrated by the common opinion on the end of the world. The belief that all human affairs will, at some time or other, be terminated by one tremendous dramatic catastrophe—that the whole history of the human race leads up to that result, and that the epoch at which it will take place is capable of being foretold—commends itself so powerfully to the imagination of mankind, and is met with under so many different forms in various countries and at various epochs of human history, that it is well worth while to consider what are the natural foundations on which it rests. Its theological evidence or bearings cannot be noticed here.

It might, at first sight, have been supposed that the most obvious view of human affairs is that which regards them merely in detail, and with a view to the present, or, at most, to the immediate future. A man would seem to occupy a position at once intelligible, and not easily assailable who believed that there was no evidence at all on which he could found any opinion as to the origin of the human race, if it ever had one, or as to its ultimate destiny, if any such destiny is ever to overtake it. It would seem, if we speculated a priori upon the beliefs which would find favour with the common run of men, that it would be natural for people to limit their speculations to the prospects of their own generation, and at farthest to that of their immediate descendants, and to leave the world at large and the human race in general to take care of itself. This, however, has not been the case in point of fact. Whatever may be the cause, in times and countries where there has been any intellectual activity at all, men have shown a disposition to attribute to the history of the human race a dramatic unity. Traces of this tendency are to be found in the classical visions of ages of gold, silver, brass, and iron—in the Hindoo cycles and avatars— in the ancient Rabbinical traditions to which a certain number of idle pretenders to learning still profess to attach importance in our own days—and in the eagerness with which the Christian world has in all ages deduced from the Bible, not merely the general doctrine (which is not discussed here) that the present dispensation will conclude at a given time, and in a visible and, so to speak, dramatic manner, but the specific opinion that that final consummation was at hand on many different occasions. Every one knows that certain classes of society in the present day receive the expressions of this opinion not only with favour, but with a sort of avidity; and most of us are probably aware that at particular periods—as, for example, at the beginning of the eleventh century— the conviction that the end of the world was actually approaching prevailed widely enough to produce serious effects upon the current business of society. Some of the arguments produced in favour of specific predictions upon the subject are so feeble that they can hardly weigh with any one qualified to appreciate the answers to them, though they are at times urged with a dishonesty which requires exposure; but the sentiment which gives these arguments their real weight is a more important matter, and deserves more sympathetic examination than it usually receives.

It will perhaps be most easily investigated by asking the inverse question, Why should the human race not come to an end? And to this the answer is, that such an anticipation contradicts that general assumption of permanence and stability which underlies all our speculations upon every subject whatever. Given human nature as it is, and given the conditions of life, it seems to follow that birth and death will go on indefinitely, and that men will continue to people the earth just as the earth will continue to revolve in its place in the solar system. The only possible answer to this is that it is very possible to ascribe too much importance to the conditions upon which the permanence and stability of our mental operations depend. It does not follow that a proposition must be true, because without it our speculations would fall to the ground. The real inference is, that the value of our speculations depends upon the degree of truth contained in the fundamental assumptions on which they repose. The tendency of men to believe that the world will come to an end, and to dally with and in some degree to welcome the anticipation, is only one form of their impatience of the conditions under which they think and live, an impatience neither ignoble nor altogether unreasonable. Rude ages and populations are oppressed by the routine of daily life, and in more cultivated times a somewhat similar result is produced by the wide diffusion of scientific methods of thought and observation. The thought presses on the mind that the thing that hath been the same also shall be—that the world and all that is in it, and all the other worlds by which it is surrounded, are a huge dead machine, grinding on eternally according to its own principles, and coming back perpetually at regular intervals to the same result. In the presence of these great regularities, the little irregularities of individual will and character seem to disappear, and man sinks into the condition of a wheel in the vast and fatal machine which inexorably hems him in on every side. Such thoughts do not of course present themselves to a rude age in this precise form. In such an age, the absence of uniformity or plan in nature weighs upon the soul as its omnipresence does in our own times. Men find their purposes thwarted and themselves controlled by a vast irrational brute nature, which condemns them to an endless unintelligent slavery. In either case, the conception of the end of the world is welcome. It is an opportunity for the spiritual nature of man to defy its material antagonist. It is an elevating thought that at some time, and under some circumstances, all that we see, and touch, and weigh, and measure, will cease to be, and that the spirits of men will he recognized, for good or for evil, as the real substances of which the heavens and the earth are the accidents. Whether such an anticipation is true or false, it is at least splendid; and it gives the lie to much of that sham magnificence with which, in a scientific age, things intrinsically dead and soulless arc invested by false associations.

Every generation is guided, and to a great extent governed, by ideal conceptions; and the conceptions which influence any given age are indicated by the abstract words which find most favour with it. There is little difficulty in specifying those which act most powerfully on our own times. "Progress" and "civilization" are the most important of them, and they point to a view of life which to many minds is utterly intolerable. They imply some such dream as this—The time will come, and is now coming, when war shall be unknown, when crime shall cease, when comfort shall be universal, and when life, almost, freed from disease, shall be prolonged some years beyond its present limit. Every year will bring forth inventions which will economise labour. Principles universally accepted will give an ease, a gentleness, and a regularity to life which exists at present only amongst the affluent and privileged classes. Every one will be as well off as the comfortable part of the English middle classes are at present, and the characters of men will be cast in a mould as easy and inoffensive as their circumstances. Such is the sort of ideal which in a thousand ways is hinted at. Seventy, or say even eighty, years of harmless comfort, and then a quiet death.

The world in which we live is a moral problem already, and one which is at times distressing, but such a lubberland as that could be made tolerable only by the prospect of its speedy end. That men really passed through six thousand years of trial and suffering, in order that there might be at last a perpetual succession of comfortable shopkeepers, is a supposition so revolting to the moral sense that it would be difficult to reconcile it with any belief at all in a Divine Providence. The expectation that the world—that is, that human society—will some day come to an end, is based upon the belief that man is something more than the complement to brute matter, that he imparts dignity and interest to the planet in which he lives, and does not receive his importance from it. It follows, from such a belief, that the narrow and limited range of human faculties, the ceaseless strife and bottomless confusion of human passions, the struggle between moral good and evil— each of which, as far as human eyes can see, is not only antagonistic but necessary to the other—are not mere processes tending to work out their own solution here in some future generation, but tremendous mysteries which can never be reconciled until some final decision and judgment is pronounced upon them.

It is impossible to say what analogy exists between the race and the individual, and attempts to explain the history of the one by the stages which mark the life of the other are at best more ingenious than satisfactory; but almost every fact with which we are acquainted seems to suggest that some such analogy exists, though its particulars are altogether unknown, and though we cannot even say whether mankind ought to be compared to one individual or to many. It may, however, be allowable, in dealing with a subject which appeals rather to the feelings and to the imagination than to the reason, to point out the fact that the cessation of human society would present a striking analogy to the death of individuals, and that there would be the same contradictory mixture of completeness and incompleteness about a society eternally renewed as there would be about a human being who never died. The conviction that the life of a man forms a moral whole is so thoroughly worked into our minds and our very language that no one doubts it. That it is a mysterious and utterly contradictory thing at its best estate is the experience of every person who has even ordinary powers of reflection. It is hard to imagine the degree in which these mysteries and contradictions would be heightened if man were immortal. If, after arriving at that average degree of prudence and self-restraint which almost every one attains comparatively early in life, people lived on and on for centuries and millenniums, carrying on the same transactions, settling the same difficulties, enjoying the same pleasures, and suffering from the same vexations, the question why they ever were sent into the world at all (which is even now sufficiently perplexing) would become altogether overwhelming; and the faith which people at present maintain in the Divine government of the world would have to be based on entirely different grounds, if it survived at all. It is, perhaps, not merely fanciful to suggest that a somewhat similar difficulty would exist if human society, after a long and laborious education, were to attain to a stationary state, and were then to go on indefinitely enjoying itself. Such a heaven on earth would at best be high life below stairs.

The celebration of the triumphs of civilization, which is at present in full bloom, produces on many minds an effect not unlike that which Robespierre's feasts to the Supreme Being produced on his colleagues. "You are beginning to be a bore with your nineteenth century," is the salutation which many a philosopher would receive in these days from a sincere audience. Weigh, and measure, and classify as we will, we are but poor creatures, when all is said and done. It would be a relief to think that a day was coming when the world, whether more comfortable or not, would at least see and know itself as it is, and when the real gist and bearing of all the work, good and evil, that is done under the sun, should at last be made plain. Till then, knowledge, science, and power are, after all, little more than shadows in a troubled dream—a dream which will soon pass away from each of us, if it does not pass away at once from all.

Saturday Review, April 14, 1860.

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