Sovereignty of Ethics
SINCE the discovery of Oersted that galvanism and electricity
and magnetism are only forms of one and the same force, and convertible each into the other, we have continually suggested
to us a larger generalization: that each of the great departments of Nature - chemistry, vegetation, the animal life -exhibits
the same laws on a different plane; that the intellectual and moral worlds are analogous to the material. There is a kind
of latent omniscience not only in every man but in every particle. That convertibility we so admire in plants and animal structures,
whereby the repairs and the ulterior uses are subserved, when one part is wounded or deficient, by another; this self-help
and self-creation proceed from the same original power which works remotely in grandest and meanest structures by the same
design, - works in a lobster or a miteworm as a wise man would if imprisoned in that poor form. 'T is the effort of God, of
the Supreme Intellect, in the extremest frontier of his universe.
As this unity
exists in the organization of insect, beast and bird, still ascending to man, and from lower type of man to the highest yet
attained, so it does not less declare itself in the spirit or intelligence of the brute. In ignorant ages it was common to
vaunt the human superiority by underrating the instinct of other animals; but a better discernment finds that the difference
is only of less and more. Experiment shows that the bird and the dog reason as the hunter does, that all the animals show
the same good sense in their humble walk that the man who is their enemy or friend does; and, if it be in smaller measure,
yet it is not diminished, as his often is, by freak and folly.
St. Pierre says
of the animals that a moral sentiment seems to have determined their physical organization.I see the unity of thought and
of morals running through all animated Nature; there is no difference of quality, but only of more and less. The animal who
is wholly ept down in Nature has no anxieties. By yielding, as he must do, to it, he is enlarged and reaches his highest point.
The poor grub, in the hole of a tree, by yielding itself to Nature, goes blameless through its low part and is rewarded at
last, casts its filthy hull, expands into a beautiful form with rainbow wings, and makes a part of the summer day.
The Greeks called it Psyche, a manifest emblem of the soul. The man down in Nature occupies himself
in guarding, in feeding, in warming and multiplying his body, and, as long as he knows no more, we justify him; but presently
a mystic change is wrought, a new perception opens, and he is made a citizen of the world of souls: he feels what is called
duty; he is aware that he owes a higher allegiance to do and live as a good member of this universe. In the measure in which
he has this sense he is a man, rises to the universal life. The high intellect is absolutely at one with moral nature. A thought
is imbosomed in a sentiment, and the attempt to detach and blazon the thought is like a show of cut flowers. The moral is
the measure of health, and in the voice of Genius I hear invariably the moral tone, even when it is disowned in words; - health,
melody and a wider horizon belong to moral sensibility. The finer the sense of justice, the better poet.
The believer says to the skeptic: —
avenue was shaded from thine eyes
Through which I wandered to eternal truth."
Humility is the avenue. To be sure, we exaggerate when we represent these two elements as disunited;
every man shares them both; but it is true that men generally are marked by a decided predominance of one or of the other
element.In youth and in age we are moralists, and in mature life the moral element steadily rises in the regard of all reasonable
'T is a sort of proverbial dying speech of scholars (at least it is attributed
to many) that which Anthony Wood reports of Nathaniel Carpenter, an Oxford Fellow. "It did repent him," he said,
"that he had formerly so much courted the maid instead of the mistress," (meaning philosophy and mathematics to
the neglect of divinity).
This, in the language of our time, would be ethics.
And when I say that the world is made up of moral forces, these are not separate. All forces are found in Nature united with
that which they move : heat is not separate, light is not massed aloof, nor electricity, nor gravity, but they are always
in combination. And so moral powers; they are thirsts for action, and the more you accumulate, the more they mould and form.
It is in the stomach of plants that development begins, and ends in the circles of the universe.
'T is along scale from the gorilla to the gentleman from the gorilla to Plato,
Shakspeare - to the sanctities of religion, the refinements of legislation, the summits of science, art and poetry. The beginnings
are slow and infirm, but it is an always accelerated march. The geologic world is chronicled by the growing ripeness of the
strata from lower to higher, as it becomes the abode of more highly-organized plants and animals. The civil history of men
might be traced by the successive meliorations as marked in higher moral generalizations; -virtue meaning physical courage,
then chastity and temperance, then justice and love; -bargains of kings with peoples of certain rights to certain classes,
then of rights to masses,-then at last came the day when, as the historians rightly tell, the nerves of the world were electrified
by the proclamation that all men are born free and equal.
Every truth leads in
another. The bud extrudes the old leaf, and every truth brings that which will supplant it. In the court of law the judge
sits over the culprit, but in the court of life in the same hour the judge also stands as culprit before a true tribunal.
Every judge is a culprit, every law an abuse. Montaigne kills off bigots as cowhage kills worms; but there is a higher muse
there sitting where he durst not soar, of eye so keen that it can report of a realm in which all the wit and learning of the
Frenchman is no more than the cunning of a fox.
It is the same fact existing as
sentiment and as will in the mind, which works in Nature as irresistible law, exerting influence over nations, intelligent
beings, or down in the kingdoms of brute or of chemical atoms. Nature is a tropical swamp in sunshine, on whose purlieus we
hear the song of summer birds, and see prismatic dew-drops-but her interiors are terrific, full of hydras and crocodiles.
In the pre-adamite she bred valor only; by-and-by she gets on to man, and adds tenderness, and thus raises virtue piecemeal.
When we trace from the beginning, that ferocity has uses; only so are the conditions of the then
world met, and these monsters are the scavengers, executioners, diggers, pioneers and fertilizers, destroying what is more
destructive than they, and making better life possible. We see the steady aim of Benefit in view from the first. Melioration
is the law. The cruelest foe is a masked benefactor. The wars which make history so dreary, have served the cause of truth
and virtue. There is always an instinctive sense of right, an obscure idea which animates either party and which in long periods
vindicates itself at last. Thus a sublime confidence is fed at the bottom of the heart that, in spite of appearances, in spite
of malignity and blind self-interest living for the moment, an eternal, beneficent necessity is always bringing things right;
and, though we should fold our arms, - which we cannot do, for our duty requires us to be the very hands of this guiding sentiment,
and work in the present moment, - the evils we suffer will at last end themselves through the incessant opposition of Nature
to everything hurtful.
The excellence of men consists in the completeness with
which the lower system is taken up into the higher - a process of much time and delicacy, but in which no point of the lower
should be left untranslated; so that the warfare of beasts should be renewed in a finer field, for more excellent victories.
Savage war gives place to that of Turenne and Wellington, which has limitations and a code. This war again gives place to
the finer quarrel of property, where the victory is wealth and the defeat poverty.
inevitabilities are always sapping every seeming prosperity built on a wrong. No matter how you seem to fatten on a crime,
that can never be good for the bee which is bad for the hive. See how these things look in the page of history. Nations come
and go, cities rise and fall, all the instincts of man, good and bad, work, - and every wish,
appetite, and passion, rushes into act and embodies itself in usages, protects itself with laws. Some of them
are useful and universally acceptable, hinder none, help all, and these are honored and perpetuated. Others are noxious. Community
of property is tried, as when a Tartar horde or an Indian tribe roam over a vast tract for pasturage or hunting; but it is
found at last that some establishment of property, allowing each on some distinct terms to fence and cultivate a piece of
land, is best for all.
"For my part," said Napoleon, "it is not
the mystery of the incarnation which I discover in religion, but the mystery of social order, which associates with heaven
that idea of equality which prevents the rich from destroying the poor."
I say then it were truer to see Necessity calm, beautiful, passionless, without a smile, covered with ensigns of woe, stretching
her dark warp across the universe? These threads are Nature's pernicious elements, her deluges, miasma, disease, poison; her
curdling cold, her hideous reptiles and worse men, cannibals, and the depravities of civilization; the secrets of the prisons
of tyranny, the slave and his master, the proud man's scorn, the orphan's tears, the vices of men, lust, cruelty and pitiless
avarice. These make the gloomy warp of ages. Humanity sits at the dread loom and throws the shuttle and fills it with joyful
rainbows, until the sable ground is flowered all over with a woof of human industry and wisdom, virtuous examples, symbols
of useful and generous arts, with beauty and pure love, courage and the victories of the just and wise over malice and wrong.
Nature is not so helpless but it can rid itself at last of every crime. An Eastern poet, in describing
the golden age, said that God had made justice so dear to the heart of Nature that, if any injustice lurked anywhere under
the sky, the blue vault would shrivel to a snake-skin and cast it out by spasms. But the spasms of Nature are years and centuries,
and it will tax the faith of man to wait so long.
Man is always throwing his praise
or blame on events, and does not see that he only is real, and the world his mirror and echo. He imputes the stroke to fortune,
which in reality himself strikes. The student discovers one day that he lives in enchantment: the house, the works, the persons,
the days, the weathers - all that he calls Nature, all that he calls institutions, when once his mind is active are visions
merely, wonderful allegories, significant pictures of the laws of the mind; and through this enchanted gallery he is led by
unseen guides to read and learn the laws of Heaven. This discovery may come early, - sometimes in the nursery, to a rare child;
later in the school, but oftener when the mind is more mature; and to multitudes of men wanting in mental activity it never
comes - any more than poetry or art. But it ought to come; it belongs to the human intellect, and is an insight which we cannot
The idea of right exists in the human mind, and lays itself out in the
equilibrium of Nature, in the equalities and periods of our system, in the level of seas, in the action and reaction of forces.
Nothing is allowed to exceed or absorb the rest; if it do, it is disease, and is quickly destroyed. It was an early discovery
of the mind, - this beneficent rule. Strength enters just as much as the moral element prevails. The strength of the animal
to eat and to be luxurious and to usurp is rudeness and imbecility.
The law is:
To each shall be rendered his own. As thou sowest, thou shalt reap. Smite, and
thou shalt smart. Serve, and thou shalt be served. If you love and serve men, you cannot, by any hiding or stratagem, escape
the remuneration. Secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the Divine justice. It is impossible
to tilt the beam. All the tyrants and proprietors and monopolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar.
Settles for evermore the ponderous equator to its line, and man and mote and star and sun must range with it, or be pulverized
by the recoil.
It is a doctrine of unspeakable comfort. He that plants his foot
here, passes at once out of the kingdom of illusions. Others may well suffer in the hideous picture of crime with which earth
is filled and the life of society threatened, but the habit of respecting that great order which certainly contains and will
dispose of our little system, will take all fear from the heart. It did itself create and distribute all that is created and
distributed, and, trusting to its power, we cease to care for what it will certainly order well. To good men, as we call good
men, this doctrine of Trust is an unsounded secret. They use the word, they have accepted the notion of a mechanical supervision
of human life, by which that certain wonderful being whom they call God does take up their affairs where their intelligence
leaves them, and somehow knits and co-ordinates the issues of them in all that is beyond the reach of private faculty. They
do not see that He, that It, is there, next and within; the thought of the thought; the affair of affairs; that he is existence,
and take him from them and they would not be. They do not see that particulars are sacred to him, as well as the scope and
outline; that these passages of daily life are his work; that in the moment when they desist from interference, these particulars
take sweetness and grandeur, and become the language of mighty principles.
should be a guest in his own house, and a guest in his own thought. He is there to speak for truth; but who is he ? Some clod
the truth has snatched from the ground, and with fire has fashioned to a momentary man. Without the truth, he is a clod again.
Let him find his superiority in not wishing superiority; find the riches of love which possesses that which it adores; the
riches of poverty; the height of lowliness, the immensity of to-day; and, in the passing hour, the age of ages.
Wondrous state of man! never so happy as when he has lost all private interests and regards, and
exists only in obedience and love of the Author. The fiery soul said: "Let me be a blot on this fair world, the obscurest,
the loneliest sufferer, with one proviso,-that I know it is His agency. I will love him, though he shed frost and darkness
on every way of mine." The emphasis of that blessed doctrine lay in lowliness. The new saint gloried in infirmities.
Who or what was he? His rise and his recovery were vicarious. He has fallen in another; he rises in another.
We perish, and perish gladly, if the law remains. I hope it is conceivable that a man may go to ruin
gladly, if he see that thereby no shade falls on that he loves and adores. We need not always be stipulating for our clean
shirt and roast joint per diem. We do not believe the less in astronomy and vegetation, because we are writhing and roaring
in our beds with rheumatism. Cripples and invalids, we doubt not there are bounding fawns in the forest, and lilies with graceful,
springing stem; so neither do we doubt or fail to love the eternal law, of which we are such shabby practisers. Truth gathers
itself spotless and unhurt after all our surrenders and concealments and partisanship-never hurt by the treachery or ruin
of its best defenders, whether Luther, or William Penn, or St. Paul. We answer, when they tell us of the bad behavior of Luther
or Paul: 11 Well, what if he did? Who was more pained than Luther or Paul? "Shall we attach ourselves violently to our
teachers and historical personalities, and think the foundation shaken if any fault is shown in their record? But how is the
truth hurt by their falling from it? The law of gravity is not hurt by every accident, though our leg be broken. No more is
the law of justice by our departure from it.
We are to know that we are never
without a pilot. When we know not how to steer, and dare not hoist a sail, we can drift. The current knows the way, though
we do not. When the stars and sun appear, when we have conversed with navigators who know the coast, we may begin to put out
an oar and trim a sail. The ship of heaven guides itself, and will not accept a wooden rudder.
Have you said to yourself ever: I I abdicate all choice, I see it is not for me to interfere. I see that I
have been one of the crowd; that I have been a pitiful person, because I have wished to be my own master, and to dress and
order my whole way and system of living. I thought I managed it very well. I see that my neighbors think so. I have heard
prayers, I have prayed even, but I have never until now dreamed that this undertaking the entire management of my own affairs
was not commendable. I have never seen, until now, that it dwarfed me. I have not discovered, until this blessed ray flashed
just now through my soul, that there dwelt any power in Nature that would relieve me of my load. But now I see.'
What is this intoxicating sentiment that allies this scrap of dust to the whole of Nature and the
whole of Fate, - that makes this doll a dweller in ages, mocker at time, able to spurn all outward advantages, peer and master
of the elements? I am taught by it that what touches any thread in the vast web of being touches me. I am representative of
the whole; and the good of the whole, or what I call the right, makes me invulnerable.
came this creation so magically woven that nothing can do me mischief but myself, - that an invisible fence surrounds my being
which screens me from all harm that I will to resist? If I will stand upright, the creation cannot bend me. But if I violate
myself, if I commit a crime, the lightning loiters by the speed of retribution, and every act is not hereafter but instantaneously
rewarded according to its quality. Virtue is the adopting of this dictate of the universal mind by the individual will. Character
is the habit of this obedience, and Religion is the accompanying emotion, the emotion of reverence which the presence of the
universal mind ever excites in the individual.
We go to famous books for our examples
of character, just as we send to England for shrubs which grow as well in our own door-yards and cowpastures. Life is always
rich, and spontaneous graces and forces elevate it in every domestic circle, which are overlooked while we are reading something
less excellent in old authors. From the obscurity and casualty of those which I know, I infer the obscurity and casualty of
the like balm and consolation and immortality in a thousand homes which I do not know, all round the world. And I see not
why to these simple instincts, simple yet grand, all the heights and transcendencies of virtue and of enthusiasm are not open.
There is power enough in them to move the world; and it is not any sterility or defect in ethics, but our negligence of these
fine monitors, of these world-embracing sentiments, that makes religion cold and life low.
the immense energy of the sentiment of duty and the awe of the supernatural exert incomparable influence on the mind,-yet
it is often perverted, and the tradition received with awe, but without correspondent action of the receiver. Then you find
so many men infatuated on that topic. Wise on all other, they lose their head the moment they talk of religion. It is the
sturdiest prejudice in the public mind that religion is something by itself; a department distinct from all other experiences,
and to which the tests and judgment men are ready enough to show on other things, do not apply. You may sometimes talk with
the gravest and best citizen, and the moment the topic of religion is broached, he runs into a childish superstition. His
face looks infatuated, and his conversation is. When I talked with an ardent missionary, and pointed out to him that his creed
found no support in my experience, he replied, "It is not so in your experience, but is so in the other world."
I answer: Other world! there is no other world. God is one and omnipresent; here or nowhere is the whole fact.
The one miracle which God works evermore is in Nature, and imparting himself to the mind. When we
ask simply, "What is true in thought? what is just in action?" it is the yielding of the private heart to the Divine
mind, and all personal preferences, and all requiring of wonders, are profane.
word miracle, as it is used, only indicates the ignorance of the devotee, staring with wonder to see water turned into wine,
and heedless of the stupendous fact of his own personality. Here he stands, a lonely thought harmoniously organized into correspondence
with the universe of mind and matter. What narrative of wonders coming down from a thousand years ought to charm his attention
like this? Certainly it is human to value a general consent, a fraternity of believers, a crowded church; but as the sentiment
purifies and rises, it leaves crowds. It makes churches of two, churches of one. A fatal disservice does this Swedenborg or
other who offers to do my thinking for me. It seems as if, when the Spirit of God speaks so plainly to each soul, it were
an impiety to be listening to one or another saint. Jesus was better than others, because he refused to listen to others and
listened at home.
You are really interested in your thought. You have meditated
in silent wonder on your existence in this world. You have perceived in the first fact of your conscious life here a miracle
so astounding, - a miracle comprehending all the universe of miracles to which your intelligent life gives you access, - as
to exhaust wonder, and leave you no need of hunting here or there for any particular exhibitions of power. Then up comes a
man with a text of 1 John v 7, or a knotty sentence from St. Paul, which he considers as the axe at the root of your tree.
You cannot bring yourself to care for it. You say: "Cut away; my tree is Ygdrasil the tree of life." He interrupts
for the moment your peaceful trust in the Divine Providence. Let him know by your security that your conviction is clear and
sufficient, and if he were Paul himself; you also are here, and with your Creator.
all give way to superstitions. The house in which we were born is not quite mere timber and stone; is still haunted by parents
and progenitors. The creeds into which we were initiated in childhood and youth no longer hold their old place in the minds
of thoughtful men, but they are not nothing to us, and we hate to have them treated with contempt. There is so much that we
do not know, that we give to these suggestions the benefit of the doubt.