Page images
PDF
EPUB

out together, it is only when the weather is warm and mild, and favourable for fishing

Poict. The singular connections of causes and effects, to which you have just referred, make superstition less to be wondered at, particularly amongst the vulgar; and when two facts, naturally unconnected, have been accidentally coincident, it is not singular that this coincidence should have been observed and registered, and that omens of the most absurd kind should be trusted in. In the west of England, half a century ago, a particular hollow noise on the sea coast was referred to a spirit or goblin, called Bucca, and was supposed to foretel a shipwreck: the philosopher knows that sound travels much faster than currents in the air, and the sound always foretold the approach of a very heavy storm, which seldom takes place on that wild and rocky coast, without a shipwreck on some part of its extensive shores, surrounded by the Atlantic.

Phys. All the instances of omens you have mentioned are founded on reason; but how can you explain such absurdities as Friday being an unlucky day, the terror of spilling salt, or meeting an old woman? I knew a man, of very high dignity, who was exceedingly moved by these omens, and who never went out shooting without a bittern's claw fastened to his button-hole by a riband, which he thought ensured him good luck.

Poict. These, as well as the omens of death watches, dreams, &c., are for the most part founded upon some accidental coincidence; but spilling of salt, on an uncommon occasion, may, as I have known it, arise from a disposition to apoplexy, shown by an incipient numbness in the hand, and may be a fatal symptom; and persons, dispirited by bad omens, sometimes

prepare

the
way

for evil fortune; for confidence in success is a great means of ensuring it. The dream of Brutus, before the field of Pharsalia, probably produced a species of irresolution and despondency which was the principal cause of his losing the battle: and I have heard that the illustrious sportsman to whom you referred just now, was always observed to shoot ill, because he shot carelessly, after one of his dispiriting omens.

Hal. I have in life met with a few things which I found it impossible to explain, either by chance coincidences or by natural connections; and I have known minds of a very superior class affected by them-persons in the habit of reasoning deeply and profoundly.

VOL. I.

M

Phys. In my opinion, profound minds are the most likely to think lightly of the resources of human reason; and it is the pert superficial thinker who is generally strongest in every kind of unbelief. The deep philosopher sees chains of causes and effects so wonderfully and strangely linked together, that he is usually the last person to decide upon the impossibility of any two series of events being independent of each other; and in science, so many natural miracles, as it were, have been brought to light—such as the fall of stones from meteors in the atmosphere, the disarming a thunder cloud by a metallic point, the production of fire from ice by a metal white as silver, and the referring certain laws of motion of the sea to the moon—that the physical inquirer is seldom disposed to assert, confidently, on any abstruse subjects belonging to the order of natural things, and still less so on those relating to the more mysterious relations of moral events and intellectual natures.

27.- THE PRESENT AGE.

CHANNING.

[It is our intention, from time to time, to give specimens of these writers of the United States, who have added something to the glories of “ the tongue which Shakspere spake.” Amongst these, one of the most celebrated is William Ellery Channing, D.D. He was born in 1780 or 1781; was educated at Harvard College ; became a member of the Unitarian communion; and spent his life as pastor of a congregation at Boston.

He died in 1842. Dr. Channing's reputation a few years ago was very high in this country; chiefly from the republication of his Essays on Milton and on Napoleon Bonaparte. The publication of his collected works has, perhaps, not tended to sustain this favourable opinion amongst the best informed. He is a great master of words, which he pours forth with fluency, elegance, and even splendour ; but there is unquestionably a poverty of thought under his diffuseness. The gold, if gold it be, is hammered out till its solidity is gone. Channing was an orator by profession ; and it is remarkable how few orators have any value as writers. The quality of repetition, which is necessary to the speaker, becomes wearisome to a reader. And yet Channing may be advantageously read. Passing over his controversial works, there is great benevolence in all his tendencies. He sees the conditions of human progress very clearly. He aims to banish vice and ignorance from the world by the general elevation of the great masses of the people. His efforts for the abolition of negroslavery were unremitting.)

In looking at our age, I am struck, immediately, with one commanding characteristic, and that is, the tendency in all its movements to expansion, to diffusion, to universality. To this, I ask your attention. This tendency is directly opposed to the spirit of exclusiveness, restriction, narrowness, monopoly, which has prevailed in past ages. Human action is now freer, more unconfined. All goods, advantages, helps, are more open to all. The privileged petted individual, is becoming less, and the human race are becoming more. The multitude is rising from the dust. Once we heard of the few, now of the many; once of the prerogatives of a part, now of the rights of all. We are looking, as never before, through the disguises, envelopments of ranks and classes, to the common nature which is below them; and are beginning to learn that every being who partakes of it, has noble powers to cultivate, solemn duties to perform, inalienable rights to assert, a vast destiny to accomplish. The grand idea of humanity, of the im. portance of man as man, is spreading silently, but surely. Not that the worth of the human being is at all understood as it should be; but the truth is glimmering through the darkness. A faint consciousness of it has seized on the public mind. Even the most abject portions of society are visited by some dreams of a better condition, for which they were designed. The grand doctrine, that every human being should have the means of self-culture, of progress in knowledge and virtue, of health, comfort, and happiness, of exercising the powers and affections of a man; this is slowly taking its place, as the highest social truth. That the world was made for all, and not for a few; that society is to care for all; that no human being shall perish but through his own fault; that the great end of government is to spread a shield over the rights of all; these propositions are growing into axioms, and the spirit of them is coming forth in all the departments of life.

If we look at the various movements of our age, we shall see in them this tendency to universality and diffusion. Look, first, at science and literature. Where is science now? Locked up in a few colleges, or royal societies, or inaccessible volumes ?

Are its experiments mysteries for a few privileged eyes ? Are its portals guarded by a dark phraseology, which, to the multitude, is a foreign tongue ? NO; science has now left her retreats, her shades, her selected company of votaries, and with familiar tone, begun the work of instructing the race. Through the press, discoveries and theories, once the monopoly of philosophers, have become the property of the multitude. Its professors, heard, not long ago, in the university or some narrow school, now speak in the Mechanics’Institute. The doctrine that the labourer should understand the principles of his art, should be able to explain the laws and processes which he turns to account; that instead of working as a machine, he should join intelligence to his toil, is no longer listened to as a dream. Science, once the greatest of distinctions, is becoming popular. A lady gives us conversations on chemistry, revealing to the minds of our youth vast laws of the universe, which, fifty years ago, had not dawned on the greatest minds. The school-books of our children contain grand views of the creation. There are parts of our country (the United States) in which lyceums spring up in almost every village, for the purpose of mutual aid in the study of natural science. The characteristic of our age, then, is not the improvement of science, rapid as this is, so much as its extension to all men.

The same characteristic will appear, if we inquire into the use now made of science. Is it simply a matter of speculation ? a topic of discourse ? an employment of the intellect? In this case, the multitude, with all their means of instruction, would find in it only a hurried gratification. But one of the distinctions of our time is, that science has passed from speculation into life. Indeed it is not pursued enough for its intellectual and contemplative uses. It is sought as a mighty power, by which nature is not only to be opened to thought, but to be subjected to our needs. It is conferring on us that dominion over earth, sea, and air, which was prophesied in the first command given to man by his Maker; and this dominion is now employed, not to exalt a few, but to multiply the comforts and ornaments of life for the multitude of men. Science has become an inexhaustible mecha. nician; and by her forges, and mills, and steam cars, and printers' presses, is bestowing on millions, not only comforts, but luxuries which were once the distinction of a few.

Another illustration of the tendency of science to expansion and universality may be found in its aims and objects. Science has burst all bonds, and is aiming to comprehend the universe, and thus it multiplies fields of inquiry for all orders of minds. There is no province of nature which it does not invade. Not content with exploring the darkest periods of human history, it goes behind the birth of the human race, and studies the stupendous changes which our globe experienced for hundreds of centuries, to become prepared for man's abode. Not content with researches into visible nature, it is putting forth all its energies to detect the laws of invisible and imponderable matter. Difficulties only provoke it to new efforts. It would lay open the secrets of the polar ocean, and of untrodden barbarous lands. Above all, it investigates the laws of social progress, of arts, and institutions of government, and political economy, proposing as its great end the alleviation of all human burdens, the weal of all the members of the human race.

In truth, nothing is more characteristic of our age than the vast range of inquiry which is opening more and more to the multitude of men. Thought frees the old bounds to which men used to confine themselves. It holds nothing too sacred for investigation. It calls the past to account; and treats hoary opinions as if they were of yesterday's growth. No reverence drives it back. No great name terrifies it. The foundations of what seems most settled must be explored. Undoubtedly this is a perilous tendency. Men forget the limits of their powers. They question the infinite, the unsearchable, with an audacious self-reliance. They shock pious and revering minds, and rush into an extravagance of doubt, more unphilosophical and foolish than the weakest credulity. Still, in this dangerous wild. ness, we see what I am stating, the tendency to expansion in the movements of thought.

I have hitherto spoken of science, and what is true of science is still more true of literature. Books are now placed within reach of all. Works, once too costly except for the opulent, are now to be found on the labourer's shelf. Genius sends its light into cottages. The great names of literature are become household words among the crowd. Every party, religious or political, scatters its sheets on all the winds. We may lament, and too justly, the small comparative benefit as yet accomplished by this agency; but this ought not to surprise or discourage us. In our present stage of improvement, books of little worth, deficient in taste and judgment, and ministering to men's prejudices and passions, will almost certainly be circulated too freely. Men are never very wise and select in the exercise of a new power.

« PreviousContinue »