MR. LILLY ON THE PROPHECY OF HISTORY.
MR. LILLY, in a dialogue published in the new number of the Contemporary, which has the merit of much literary finish as well as a very interesting drift, maintains that all history, whether that compressed into what are called prehistoric remains, or that contained in old chronicles and modern attempts to read the story of the past, teaches the same lesson of progress,—first, of progress in subduing physical nature ; next, of progress in the development of moral in- dividuality and of fidelity to ethical laws ; and lastly, of progress in the apprehension of religious truth. He admits freely that everywhere there appear to be signs of enormous waste. "The waste and rain in history," he says truly enough, "have their counterpart in the physical world and in the heart of man. The phenomenal is a vast outrage on the ideal. But in spite of immense drawbacks, I think that the progress of our race, on the whole, is unquestionable; that the gradual evolution of humanity is a patent fact." "Dens ordinem saecaloram tanquam palcherrimum carmen ex quibusdam quasi antithetis honestavit," he quotes from St. Augustine. And he finds in the myth of Prometheus "the great founder of civilisation, who taught the Cave-men the use of fire, numbers, and writing, nay, astronomy, medicine, navigation, divination, and who, bound to the rock and gnawed by the vulture, predicts the eventual fall of tyrannous Zeus and the triumph of justice," the type of the same generous waste of great resources for the achievement of a great end which has been exemplified in our actual history. History, Mr. Lilly seems to say, is a record of ruin gradually transformed into the foundation of what is more glorious than that which fell into ruins,—of ruin which, instead of turning our eyes back in melancholy to the past, fills them with the vision of an ideal future. Every great man has a genius of his own which he does not derive from the circum- stances of his epoch, but with which he floods the circumstances of his epoch so as to transmute them into something nobler than they were; and yet it is also true that each great epoch has some special genius of its own which it does not derive even from its own greatest minds, but offers to them as its contribution to their influence. There is a divine inspiration in great minds which transfigures the divine inspiration of the age in which they live, and carries it a step upwards; and there is a divine light in each age which lends itself to the divine gifts of its greatest minds, and determines the line of their most efficacious effort. That is how we understand the general drift of Mr. Lilly's dialogue, his conclusion being that not only in great men, but in society itself, there is a constant accumulation of renovating power which pushes the world on to new achieve- ments, and avails itself even of the vast failures and disasters and wrecks with which history is everywhere strewn, to impress the lesson of the eternal righteousness, and to supply the motive for a yet more exalted endeavour. According to Mr. Lilly's view, that which Christianity promises, history verifies. "Christianity unfolding a divine purpose which runs through the ages and culminates beyond time,—Christianity, which has truly been called a transcendent theory of progress, has cast this theory into the mould which has most potently affected mankind."
. We need not say that we concur most heartily in this doctrine, that history verifies the promise which all the early religions, culminating in Judaism, gave, and which Christianity in part ful- filled and in part renewed and transfigured. But we should hesitate to say,—indeed, we believe that Mr. Lilly too hesitates to say,— that history divorced from faith would prophesy in the same strain which history when interpreted by faith fairly sustains. Mr. Lilly's point, as we understand it, is that history shows a constantly renovated spring of ideal impulse, both in the great men of our race and in the great societies in which these great men have lived, and that this of itself bears witness to a permanent fountain of moral and religions force, such as will flow on for ever. We quite agree. But then we must ask our- selves whether there is no eiew of the phenomena which, though in itself unreasonable to a man who is convinced by his own conscience of the reality of the divine impulse within him, would be perfectly reasonable to one who had no such witness within him. Mr. Lilly, in the course of this dialogue, has himself quoted Cardinal Newman's striking remark :—" It is a great question whether Atheism is not as philosophically consistent with the phenomena of the physical world, taken by themselves,—that is, apart from psychological phenomena, apart from moral considerations, apart from the moral prin- ciple by -which they must be interpreted, apart from that idea of God which wakes up in the mind under the stimulus of intel- lectual training,—as the doctrine of a creative and governing power." Now, we should extend this remark, and say that without the interpreting agency of the same great religions convictions, it might be applied to all the phenomena of history, and not to physical phenomena only. Un- doubtedly there is progress of a sort; undoubtedly there is evolution ; undoubtedly there is a great development of human intelligence and of human morality. But does all this point to infinite, or to a finite progress ? Is it an upward growth towards a maximum, from which sub- sequent decline is certain, or indefinite progress towards an ideal which shall always rise as it is approached ? The religions
man, just because his heart is rooted in religious conviction, will interpret it in the latter sense. But the mere observer of nature and history may fairly interpret it in the former sense. He will observe that as the law of physical progress appears to depend ultimately upon the diffusion of heat from fixed solar centres,—a process which cannot be conceived as going on for ever, so whenever a perfectly uniform diffusion of heat shall be reached at last, there must then be a finish to all the vital processes which depend upon it. And what is true, it will he said, of physical differentiation and growth, is still more true of the progress of the mind. That progress, such a critic will say, depends largely on the vast differences between the greater minds of our world and the commoner minds. The great minds diffuse their light and heat as the solar centres diffuse theirs ; and the commoner minds absorb it as the planetary worlds absorb the heat of the suns. The process of civilisation means a tendency towards democracy,—means the borrowing continually of the average mind from the greater minds, and the attenuation of the gulf between them ; and whenever this attenuation has gone far enough, whenever there is no longer a great gulf between the highest minds and average minds,—then there will be a monotony, a dead-level, an intellectual and moral equilibrium attained, which will imply, not higher moral vitality, but lower ; not the vividness of the constant interchange of moral and intellectual gifts on the one hand, for moral and intellectual gratitude on the other, but the diffused equality which has no high lights and no dark shadows, no great hopes and no great fears. The mere observer of historical laws will ask whether there is not the closest possible analogy between the gradual filling up of the earth's surface and the consequent exhaustion of all the grander physical possibilities and especially of the majestic solitudes which have done so much to kindle the imagination of men and to feed poetic genius, and the filling up of the moral area with natures which approach more and more to the same level, and by approaching more and more to that level, oppress the imagination and con- strain the free movements of minds which would otherwise be at liberty to live their own life and to give the law to others. As our planet is a very small one and its resources very limited, and as the. development of the mind depends in a great measure on the free range of the body, is it not reasonable, it will be asked, to expect that, as people crowd each other more and more in its well-defined limits, the minds of these people will interfere more and more with each other's liberty till there is no adequate room left for either the solitary flights of genius or the heroic efforts of goodness? Does not the necessary tendency to the elevation of the masses more or less necessarily imply the increasing limita- tion of the mental and moral scope of the most gifted of those masses,—at least, after the maximum is reached atwhich the development of society fosters the development of individual genius,—a maximum which must be reached and passed some- where, if only because human liberty itself dwindles as the number of people who have to adjust their own claims so as not to infringe that liberty, increases.
That is the kind of argument, we take it, by which those who reason from the past alone, and who do not carry any trans- cendent faith with them into its review, would be guided. For ourselves, we see no answer to it except this,—that the future of the mind is not to be measured by the future of the body, and that even when the time comes, as come it might, when the physical resources of this planet should be exhausted, either by the cooling of the planet itself, or by the increase of the popu- lation upon it and the consequent strife and, pressure of rival interests, there would still be an infinite future open to the faith of man beyond that catastrophe to our bodily life which would then seem to be approaching.
We put the case thus, not because we differ in the least from Mr. Lilly,—we most earnestly agree with him,—but because he has not embodied in his dialogue what seems to us the sceptic's most natural view of the phenomena of history, namely, that the progress already visible, though real enough, suggests that human development is approaching, if it has not reached, a maximum, beyond which it will gradually recede again into ultimate nothingness. He has given us an admirable discussion of the spectacle of moral and intellectual waste, and has shown clearly enough that that waste is no reason for not expecting that upon every wilderness of history, there may be built up some still greater structure of human achievement which is even in some sense or other grounded upon the wrecks of farmer hopes; but he has not represented, as we should like to see him
represent, the sceptical view of history as a. story of limited growth doe to the gradual expenditure of the limited vital force which is in nature and man, till it reaches a point from which it mast as steadily decline,—the point, namely, where those physi- cal endowments on which the bodily nature of man depends, begin to fail us.
We believe that view to be false and superficial, because we believe that even if the body of man were to be starved out here, his mind would develope in the life beyond. But that is a view which the historian, as such, must ignore ; and which the religious man must read into history, rather than extract from it.