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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Greatness Of Man

Title:     The Greatness Of Man
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

Ignorant, as I inevitably am, dear reader, of your intellectual and spiritual upbringing, I can hardly guess whether the title of my article will impress you as a platitude or as a paradox. Goodness knows, some men and women think quite enough of themselves as it is, and, from a certain momentary point of view, there may seem little occasion indeed to remind man of his importance.

I refer to your intellectual and spiritual upbringing, because I venture to wonder if it was in the least like my own. I was brought up, I rejoice to say, in the bosom of an orthodox Puritan family. I was led and driven to believe that man was everybody, and that God was somebody--and that not merely the Sabbath, but the whole universe, was made for man: that the stars were his bedtime candles, and that the sun arose to ensure his catching the 8.37 of a morning.

On this belief I acted for many years. Every young man believes that there is no god but God, and that he is born to be His prophet--though perhaps that belief is not so common nowadays. I am speaking of many years ago.

Science, however, has long since changed all that. Those terrible Muses, geology, astronomy, and particularly biology, have reduced man to a humility which, if in some degree salutary, becomes in its excess highly dangerous. Why should one maggot in this great cheese of the world take itself more seriously than others? Why dream mightily and do bravely if we are but a little higher than the beasts that perish? Nature cares nothing about us, and her giant forces laugh at our fancies. The world has no such meaning as we thought. Poets and saints, deluded by unhealthy imaginations, have misled us, and it is quite likely that the wild waves are really saying nothing more important than 'Beecham's Pills.'

'Give us a definition of life,' I asked a certain famous scientist and philosopher whom I am privileged to call my friend.

'Nothing easier!' he gaily replied. 'Life is a product of solar energy, falling upon the carbon compounds, on the outer crust of a particular planet, in a particular corner of the solar system.'

'And that,' I said, 'really satisfies you as a definition of life--of all the wistful wonder of the world!' And as I spoke I thought of Moses with mystically shining face upon the Mount of the Law, of Ezekiel rapt in his divine fancies, of Socrates drinking his cup of hemlock, of Christ's agony in the garden; the golden faces of the great of the world passed as in a dream before me,--soldiers, saints, poets, and lovers. I thought of Horatius on the bridge, of the holy and gentle soul of St. Francis, of Chatterton in his splendid despair, and in fancy I went with the awestruck citizens of Verona to reverently gaze at the bodies of two young lovers who had counted the world well lost if they might only leave it together.

The carbon compounds!

I took down _Romeo and Juliet_, listened to its passionate spheral music, and the carbon compounds have never troubled me again.

Love laughs at the carbon compounds, and a great book, a noble act, a beautiful face, make nonsense of such cheap formula for the mystery of human life.

Yet this parable of the carbon compounds is a fair sample of all that science can tell us when we come to ultimates. We go away from its oracles with a mouthful of sounding words, which may seem very impressive till we examine their emptiness. What, for example, is all this rigmarole about solar energy and the carbon compounds but a more pompous way of putting the old scriptural statement that man was made of the dust of the ground? To say that God took a handful of dust and breathed upon it and it became man, is no harder to realise than that solar rays falling upon that dust should produce humanity and all the various phantasmagoria of life. If anything, it is more explanatory. It leaves us with an inspiring mystery for explanation.

In saying this, I do not forget our debt to science. It has done much in clearing our minds of cant, in popularising more systematic thinking, and in instituting sounder methods of observation. In some directions it has deepened our sense of wonder. It has broadened our conception of the universe, though I fear it has been at the expense of narrowing our conception of man. With Hamlet it contemptuously says, 'What is this quintessence of dust!' It is so impressed by the mileage and tonnage of the universe, so abased before the stupendous measurements of the cosmos, the appalling infinity and eternity of its space and time, that it forgets the marvel of the mind that can grasp all these conceptions, forgets, too, that, big and bullying as the forces of nature may be, man has been able in a large measure to control, indeed to domesticate, them. Surely the original fact of lightning is little more marvellous than the power of man to turn it into his errand-boy or his horse, to light his rooms with it, and imprison it in pennyworths, like the genius in the bottle, in the underground railway. Mere size seems unimpressive when we contemplate such an extreme of littleness as say the ant, that pin-point of a personality, that mere speck of being, yet including within its infinitesimal proportions a clever, busy brain, a soldier, a politician, and a merchant. That such and so many faculties should have room to operate within that tiny body--there is a marvel before which, it seems to me, the billions of miles that keep us from falling into the jaws of the sun, and the tonnage of Jupiter, are comparatively insignificant and conceivable.

No, we must not allow ourselves to be frightened by the mere size and weight of the universe, or be depressed because our immediate genealogy is not considered aristocratic. Perhaps, after all, we are sons of God, and as Mr. Meredith finely puts it, our life here may still be

'... a little holding
To do a mighty service.'

'Things of a day!' exclaims Pindar. 'What is a man? What is a man not?'

It is good for our Nebuchadnezzars, the kings of the world, and conceited, successful people generally, to measure themselves against the great powers of the universe, to humble their pride by contemplation of the fixed stars; but a too humble attitude toward the Infinite, a too constant pondering upon eternity, is not good for us, unless, so to say, we can live with them as friends, with the inspiring feeling that, little as we may seem, there is that in us which is no less infinite, no less cosmic, and that our passions and dreams have, as Mr. William Watson puts it, 'a relish of eternity.'

Readers of Amiel's 'Journal' will know what a sterilising, petrifying influence his trance-like contemplation of the Infinite had upon his life. Amiel was simply hypnotised by the universe, as a man may hypnotise himself by gazing fixedly at a star.

Mr. Pater, you will remember, has a remarkable study of a similar temperament in his _Imaginary Portraits_. Sebastian van Storck, like Amiel, had become hypnotised by the Infinite. It paralysed in him all impulse or power 'to be or do any limited thing.'

'For Sebastian, at least,' we read, 'the world and the individual alike had been divested of all effective purpose. The most vivid of finite objects, the dramatic episodes of Dutch history, the brilliant personalities which had found their parts to play in them, that golden art, surrounding one with an ideal world, beyond which the real world was discernible indeed, but etherealised by the medium through which it came to one; all this, for most men so powerful a link to existence, only set him on the thought of escape--into a formless and nameless infinite world, evenly grey.... Actually proud, at times, of his curious, well-reasoned nihilism, he could but regard what is called the business of life as no better than a trifling and wearisome delay.'

This mood, once confined to a few mystics is likely to become a common one, is already, one imagines, far from infrequent--so the increase of suicide would lead us to suppose. Robbed of his hope of a glorious immortality, stripped of his spiritual significance, bullied and belittled by science on every hand, man not unnaturally begins to feel that it is no use taking his life seriously, that, in fact, it betrays a lack of humour to do so. While he was a supernatural being, a son of God, it was with him a case of _noblesse oblige_; and while he is happy and comfortable he doesn't mind giving up the riddle of the world. It is only the unhappy that ever really think. But what is he to do when agony and despair come upon him, when all that made his life worth living is taken from him? How is he to sustain himself? where shall he look for his strength or his hope? He looks up at the sky full of stars, but he is told that God is not there, that the city of God is long since a ruin, and that owls hoot to each other across its moss-grown fanes and battlements; he looks down on the earth, full of graves, a vast necropolis of once radiant dreams, with the living for its phantoms,--and there is no comfort anywhere. Happy is he if some simple human duty be at hand, which he may go on doing blindly and dumbly--till, perhaps, the light come again. It is difficult to offer comfort to such a one. Comfort is cheap, and we know nothing. When life holds nothing for our love and delight, it is difficult to explain why we should go on living it--except on the assumption that it matters, that it is, in some mystical way, supremely important, how we live it, and what we make of those joys and sorrows which, say some, are but meant as mystical trials and tests.

Sebastian van Storck refused 'to be or do any limited thing,' but the answer to his mysticism is to be found in a finer mysticism, that which says that there is no limited act or thing, but that the significance, as well as the pathos, of eternity is in our smallest joys and sorrows, as in our most everyday transactions, and the greatness of God incarnate in His humblest child.

This, the old doctrine of the microcosm, seems in certain moments, moments one would wish to say, of divination, strangely plain and clear--when, in Blake's words, it seems so easy to

'... see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.'

Perhaps in the street, an effect of light, a passing face, yes, even the plaintive grind of a street organ, some such everyday circumstance, affects you suddenly in quite a strange way. It has become universalised. It is no longer a detail of the Strand, but a cryptic symbol of human life. It has been transfigured into a thing of infinite pathos and infinite beauty, and, sad or glad, brings to you an inexplicable sense of peace, an unshakable conviction that man is a spirit, that his life is indeed of supreme and lovely significance, and that his destiny is secure and blessed.

Matthew Arnold, ever sensitive to such spiritual states, has described these trance-like visitations in 'The Buried Life'--

'Only, but this is rare--
When a beloved hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another's eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen'd ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress'd--
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again:
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life's flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.

'And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.'

'To be or do any limited thing'! What indeed, we ask in such hours, is a limited thing, when all the humble interests of our daily life are palpably big with eternity? Is the first kiss of a great love a limited thing? though there is, unhappily, no denying that it comes to an end! When a young husband and wife smile across to each other above the sleep of their little child--is that a limited thing? When the siren voices of the world blend together on the lips of a young poet, and with rapt eyes and hot heart he makes a song as of the morning stars--is that a limited thing? Are love, and genius, and duty done in the face of death--are these limited things? I think not--and man, indeed, knows better.

Greatness is not relative. It is absolute. It is not for man to depress himself by measuring himself against the eternities and the immensities external to him. What he has to do is to look inward upon himself, to fathom the eternities and the immensities in his own heart and brain.

And the more man sees himself forsaken by the universe, the more opportunity to vindicate his own greatness. Is there no kind heart beating through the scheme of things?--man's heart shall still be kind. Will the eternal silence make mock of his dreams and his idealisms, laugh coldly at 'the splendid purpose in his eyes'? Well, so be it. His dreams and idealisms are none the less noble things, and if the gods do thus make mock of mortal joy and pain--let us be grateful that we were born mere men.

Moreover, he has one great answer to the universe--the answer of courage. He is still Prometheus, and there is no limit to what he can bear. Let the vultures of pain rend his heart as they will, he can still hiss 'coward' in the face of the Eternal. Nay, he can even laugh at his sufferings--thanks to the spirit of humour, that most blessed of ministering angels, without which surely the heart of humanity had long since broken, by which man is able to look with a comical eye upon terrors, as it were taking themselves so seriously, coming with such Olympian thunders and lightnings to break the spirit of a mere six foot of earth!

But while his courage and his humour are defences of which he cannot be disarmed, whatever be the intention of the Eternal, it is by no means certain that nature does not mean kindly by man. Perhaps the pain of the world is but the rough horseplay of great powers that mean but jest--and kill us in it: as though one played at 'tick' with an elephant!

Perhaps, after all,--who knows?--God is love, and His great purpose kind.

Surely, when you think of it, the existence in man of the senses of love and pity implies the probability of their existence elsewhere in the universe too.

'Into that breast which brings the rose
Shall I with shuddering fall.'

So runs the profoundest thought in modern poetry--and need I say it is Mr. Meredith's?

As the fragrance and colour of the rose must in some occult way be properties of the rude earth from which they are drawn by the sun, may not human love also be a kindly property of matter--that mysterious life-stuff in which is packed such marvellous potentialities? Evidently love must be somewhere in the universe--else it had not got into the heart of man; and perhaps pity slides down like an angel in the rays of the solar energy, while there is the potential beating of a human heart even in the hard crust of the carbon compounds.

I confess that this seems to me no mere fancy, but a really comforting speculation. Pain, we say, is inherent in the scheme of the universe; but is not love seen to be no less inherent, too?

There must be some soul of beauty to animate the lovely face of the world, some soul of goodness to account for its saints. If the gods are cruel, it is strange that man should be so kind, and that some pathetic spirit of tenderness should seem to stir even in the bosoms of beasts and birds.

Meanwhile, we cannot too often insist that, whatever uncertainties there be, man has one certainty--himself. Science has really adduced nothing essential against his significance. That he is not as big as an Alp, as heavy as a star, or as long-lived as an eagle, is nothing against his proper importance. Even a nobleman is of more significance in the world than his acres, and giants are not proverbial for their intellectual or spiritual qualities. The ant is of more importance than the ass, and the great eye of a beautiful woman is more significant than the whole clayey bulk of Mars.

After all the scientific mockery of the old religious ideal of the importance of man, one begins to wonder if his Ptolemaic fancy that he was the centre of the universe, and that it was all made for him, is not nearer the If truth than the pitiless theories which hardly allow him equality with the flea that perishes.

Suppose if, after all, the stars were really meant as his bedtime candles, and the sun's purpose in rising is really that he may catch the 8.37!

For, as Sir Thomas Browne says in his solemn English, 'there is surely a piece of Divinity in us, something that was before the elements, and owes no homage unto the sun.'

The long winter of materialistic science seems to be breaking up, and the old ideals are seen trooping back with something more than their old beauty, in the new spiritual spring that seems to be moving in the hearts of men.

After all its talk, science has done little more than correct the misprints of religion. Essentially, the old spiritualistic and poetic theories of life are seen, not merely weakly to satisfy the cravings of man's nature, but to be mostly in harmony with certain strange and moving facts in his constitution, which the materialists unscientifically ignore.

It was important, and has been helpful, to insist that man is an animal, but it is still more important to insist that he is a spirit as well. He is, so to say, an animal by accident, a spirit by birthright: and, however homely his duties may occasionally seem, his life is bathed in the light of a sacred transfiguring significance, its smallest acts flash with divine meanings, its highest moments are rich with 'the pathos of eternity,' and its humblest duties mighty with the responsibilities of a god.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Greatness Of Man