Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub
[blocks in formation]

WHEN the Royal Agricultural Society held its meeting in Carlisle last summer, I was called upon to preach a sermon at the special service for which, according to a good custom of some years' continuance, the society makes arrangements. The congregation consisted chiefly of the herdsmen and others brought together by the great exhibition. A very interesting occasion it was; and it seemed to me that the nature of the congregation, and the thought of the collection of animals, in the midst of which our church-tent was pitched and our worship was conducted, might suggest as the most suitable topic for consideration the difference between man and beast. Accordingly I spoke upon this great subject; and I think now, as I did then, that it was as good a subject as I could have chosen.

But of course it was not possible to do more than touch the fringe of so vast a question in a sermon, especially in a sermon to such a congregation; and I have felt a temptation, ever since the meeting of the Royal Agricultural Society, to develop somewhat more carefully and systematically thoughts which were in my mind when I preached to the herdsmen. The consequence has been, that I have determined to put together some thoughts concerning Man's Place in Nature'-a grand subject, if not a novel one-a subject which has, however, presented of late years some novel aspects, and is worthy therefore of continued consideration.

It is true that there are certain points of view, from which if we regard the subject we may make very short work of it. Man's place in nature (as most of us would be willing to concede) is that of facile princeps; he is the lord and master of all; he stands unique amongst the creatures of God; his attributes and his destiny are such as to separate him, not only in degree, but in kind, from all other living beings. Divine and human testimony combine to establish this view; and it will assist me to introduce those considerations which will form the substance of this essay, if I first refer to the testimony of which I speak, and dwell for a few moments upon it.

The Holy Scriptures are built upon the hypothesis of the supremacy and the unique position of man in creation, as upon a foundation. Indeed, it may be said that every religion which ever has been, or ever can be established in the world, is based upon this ; men may deify and worship bulls, and cats, and crocodiles, as the ancient Egyptians did; but the deifiers and worshippers must have been, and doubtless were, quite sensible of their own superiority to the creatures which they so treated. For my purpose, however, it will be sufficient to observe the remarkable manner in which the only religion in which most of us are likely to feel much interest, is expressly and professedly built upon the supremacy of man. The great purpose, almost the only purpose, of the opening chapters of Genesis would seem to be the laying of this foundation. The first chapter of Genesis is not an essay on geology, but an essay on man. "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth.' • So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him ; male and female created He them. The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.? Passages such as these are the foundation-stone of that religion, which alone influences, to any extent, the minds of the most civilised and advanced of the nations of the world.

In truth the hypothesis of the possibility of a revelation, or indeed of a religion of any kind, implies an antecedent hypothesis as to the unique and supreme position of man. Without the supposition of man being a creature capable of a revelation from God, it is manifest that the whole conception of the Bible, Old Testament and New alike, evaporates and vanishes. No one, I suppose, would care

, to argue that even the highest amongst the beasts was susceptible of even the lowest degree of religious feeling.

But something analogous to this may be said with regard to literature not claiming, like the Holy Scriptures, a divine origin. The utterances of poets and philosophers must be taken into account in any system of anthropology; the very existence of poetry and philosophy, like the existence of religion and sacred books, is a fact to be taken into account in estimating man's position. With regard to their utterances, I confess that I would rather trust a poet as an expounder of man, than I would trust a student of natural history; I do not say that either is to be followed blindly without consulting the other ; each has his own department, and each is perhaps liable to be led astray, so as to see one profile of the human face, and one only ; but if we must have one side of humanity chosen as the principal subject of examination, the spiritual side, which presents itself to the poet or the philosopher, is grander, more human, more worthy of study, than the physical or animal side. I would even venture to say that in a matter of this kind, the prophetic insight of the true poet is more powerful as a means of investigating truth, than the habit of accurate observation of physical phenomena which distinguishes the student of natural history.

Make Shakespeare in this, as in most other things we may, the spokesman for the whole family of poets. Remember Hamlet's words: What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a God!' Shakespeare knew nothing about the evolution of man from inferior forms, and even if he had I do not think that the knowledge would have interfered with his conclusion; but I venture to assert that such words as those which I have just quoted are more deeply and solemnly true, and throw more light upon man’s constitution, than much which has been put forward by physical students.

Let me give one more poetical utterance. It is in a lower key and much less forcible than Shakespeare's, but I think it worthy of production because it exhibits very keenly that complicated constitution of man's nature which so utterly differences him from other creatures, and which makes it so absolutely clear that he must have a class entirely appropriated to himself.

Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused or disabused ;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all ;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled ;

The glory, jest, and riddle of the world." Not an altogether comfortable description of human nature, and yet one which we cannot disclaim as having no marks of truth : a description, which, if it has any truth in it, must prove that a real science of anthropology must transcend physics.

I have connected philosophers with poets as exponents of man's place in nature. It is not that the philosophers, either ancient or modern, have been entirely of one mind on the subject, and that we can consequently point to certain conclusions as having the 'unanimous verdict of the whole philosophic tribe. On the other hand, the opinions held have been most various, and these opinions have divided philosophers into different schools, both in ancient and in modern times. But the mere the dis

possibility cussions in which the most thoughtful men have been engaged in all ages, the formation of schools, the earnestness with which arguments have been carried on concerning man's greatest good, the grounds of duty, the nature of his destiny, and the like great human questions, all this seems by itself to prove, or rather to postulate, the unique position of man and the high elevation of that position. Socrates and Plato, Cicero and Seneca, studied man's place in nature with such light as they could find ; and Pascal, with a brighter light shining

· Pope's Essay on Man.

2

upon the problem, has nevertheless devoted a large section of his Pensées to the Greatness and Misery of Man.'

It is impossible to do more than touch in the most passing manner upon the views held by ancient philosophers; but I should like to quote two short passages, put by Plato into the mouth of Socrates, as indicating the high view which it was possible for a philosopher more than two thousand years ago to take of the moral obligations and the future destiny of man.

The first quotation is from the Apology :

I thought, says Socrates, that I ought not to do anything common or mean in the hour of danger: nor do I now repent of the manner of my dofence, and I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live. . . . The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death.?

The other quotation represents some of the last words of Socrates, before taking the poison :

I would not have (you) sorrow at my hard lot, or say at the burial, Thus we lay out Socrates, or, Thus we follow him to the grave, or bury him ; for false words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil. Be of good cheer then, and say that you are burying my body only, and do with that as is usual and as you think best."

I am disposed to think that language of this kind to which a deeply thinking man has been led by the contemplation of his own being, and by the effort to bring his practical conduct into harmony with that which he believes to be right and true, is more valuable than any words which he may utter when indulging in dry speculataon upon human nature. The philosopher is most likely to be a successful student of man when he feels that he is a man himself. Pope tells us that

The proper study of mankind is man,

3

a

which in a certain sense is true; but it is equally true that the proper student of mankind is man, for man's nature cannot be put under a microscope, or measured by mathematical rules, or submitted to chemical tests; it is too subtle for any analysis such as these ; it can only be thoroughly examined when a man studies his own conduct and character, and satisfies himself that he is something which no other creature of God is, that he has powers which no other creature bas, and that therefore he is somehow different not merely in degree but in kind from all other creatures which the earth contains.

Consciously or unconsciously the question. What is man?' has been one of those which have exercised human thought in almost all periods; and undoubtedly one great help in answering the question is to be sought in the conclusions of the thoughtful and the good : the conclusions of heathen philosophers are not even now to be

• Jowelt's Translation, vol. i. p. 363. 3 Phædo, vol. i. p. VOL. X.-No. 53.

L

466.

despised: they have their value, nay in a certain sense they are more precious than those reached by men who have had the privilege of Christian teaching, because they show the results to which the human mind comes by its own pure unaided efforts. In fact it is difficult to say, since the atmosphere of human thought has been so thoroughly impregnated with Christian doctrine, how much of current opinion belongs to man and how much to divine revelation : but it is remarkable that the most recent effort to substitute another religion for the old faith of the Church depends upon exalted though fanciful views of the nature of man. In the religion of humanity for the idea of God is substituted that of the human race: the human race is immortal, all-powerful, all-worthy; the thought of advancing and benefiting the race is the one sufficient spring of high and noble action, and the thought of the perpetuity of the race takes the place of the belief of personal life in the world to come. a strange religion, no doubt: one of which it is not difficult to prophesy that it will never be very widely spread, and will never take deep root, but interesting so far as my present subject is concerned, inasmuch as it indicates a deep-lying conviction and a powerful testimony in favour of the dignity of man's place in nature.

But we may leave philosophical speculations and philosophical religions, and come down to the region of the common sense of mankind. This common sense tells us, not merely that 'man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes and pompous in the grave,'' but that he stands absolutely by himself in creation. His superiority is not of the same kind as that which a dog might claim over a lobster, or an eagle over a beetle, or a fish over a worm. The difference is of a kind which a naturalist simply cannot measure ; it depends upon moral characteristics, involves considerations of feelings and affections, deals with conscience and the sense of right, recognises the power of an independent will, cannot limit itself to the life which now is, but stretches out into the future and only attains its complete development on the other side of the tomb. I do not say that some or all of these points of difference may not be contested, and are not -contested by some amongst us; but I think I am not wrong in saying that the general sentiment or opinion, or, as I have called it, the common sense of mankind, is a testimony, whatever it may be worth, on the side of those who would assign to man an indefinite superiority above other creatures, that kind of superiority which is asserted by the transcendent phrase, created in the image of God.'

Hence it might seem to be waste of time, especially in this late period of the world's bistory, to discuss in any way man's place in creation. But views have been advanced in our own time by scientific men, and coming from them have necessarily considerable

+ Sir Thomas Browne.

.

« VorigeDoorgaan »