JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter III.
The Origin of Literature.

WE will begin with a survey of our position. The equilibrium of man's faculties is broken. In his consciousness, throughout his whole nature, there is disturbance. Was it always so? All the attempted solutions of this question may be reduced to two. One school says "Look around you, and everywhere you see a struggle for life. The weak gives place to the strong. It is the survival of the fittest.{1} This is true of man as well as of the rest of the brute creation; for he is but a link in the chain of the grand whole, differing from the dog or the chimpanzee in degree of intelligence rather than in kind.{2} He is subject to the same impulses -- ever ready to make might right -- ever on the alert to show his selfishness; for passion is simply a manifestation of self. His animal nature is the primary cause of this disturbance, and as he ascends the scale of perfectibility an equilibrium in his faculties will become more determined. See how much has been already accomplished. There is to-day greater difference between the intelligent Caucasian and the South Sea savage than between the savage and the monkey."{3} According to this view, language and literature are solely the result of man's progress in intelligence. But facts militate against the theory; for the noblest monuments of literature are the earliest. Witness the Bible, the Vedas, Confucius, and Homer. We are not with this school.

The other -- the conservative school -- recognizes the fact that as an animal, with animal appetites, man is subject to the laws of animal life; but that as a reasonable, responsible being, endowed with a soul possessed of a sense of right and wrong, he is bound to restrain and often suppress these appetites. It holds that the soul is of immediate origin from the Creator, however may be the process of development by which the body has come to its present shape. "For," it says, "however much races may vary, species never do. They are distinct creations. However much sophistry may confound race with species, nature never makes the blunder. The law of crossings is inviolable." Its belief in a personal God confirms this view. It sees His preservative act in life, and defines it to be the influx of His creative act. Therefore it sees nothing unreasonable in distinct creations. It does not consider the soul hereditary, though capacities, dispositions, and the like, dependent on organisms, are. This school further recognizes the fact that, in certain stages of its existence, society is progressive; though it perceives no such tendency in the savage state. This it regards rather as the old age of society; and the traditions of nations are with it. They all look back to a golden age from the ideal of which men have degenerated: "First was founded the golden age, which, of its own accord, without avenger, and without laws, practiced both faith and rectitude."{4}

This embodiment of Roman and Grecian tradition implies a harmony in men's consciousness to which we are entire strangers. The history of the East points to the same result. True, the East had its material and intellectual growth and development, but it is so far back, and has been so rapid, and so distinct from anything we witness that it evidently possessed fresher and more productive civilizing traditions. Speaking of Egypt, Mariette says "Egyptian civilization manifests itself to us fully developed from the earliest ages, and succeeding ones, however numerous, taught it little more."{5} The same is true of China. Historians have found it difficult to trace her progress in literature and civilization. "At the earliest period at which Chinese history opens upon us," says Fergusson, "we find the same amount of civilization maintaining itself utterly unprogressively to the present day."{6} And that book which is of more weight with this school than all others -- the Bible -- confirms this universal tradition, and points to a mysterious fact which is the clue to all the intellectual and moral disturbance in man's consciousness. "Original sin is a mystery," says Balmes, "but it explains the whole world."{7} Without this faith " -- in Christianity, and therefore in original sin," says Schlegel -- "the whole history of the world would be nought else than an insoluble enigma; an inextricable labyrinth; an unfinished edifice; and the great tragedy of humanity would remain devoid of all proper result."{8} The fall is therefore to be accepted as explaining the present disturbance in man's soul. Let us study the relations of literature to this primary fact of all history.

Prior to the fall, there was no need of a written literature. All man's powers -- his will, his intelligence, and the affections of his soul -- were so blended together in a harmonious whole, that, in the simple intuition of nature, his insight would have been frequently as deep as that which to-day is the result of discursive reasoning; and the only approach to literature would have been the endless song of praise ascending from each individual -- a varied hymn, as the warblings of the feathered tribe are varied -- to the Creator of all the beauty and loveliness of which he were the eloquent admirer. Tradition and history he would have remembered without the use of letters. It is a defective intelligence that calls for such aids. Discussion is more a result of our weakness than of our strength. What we comprehend thoroughly we least question. Genius, in its noblest and purest flights, approaches this condition of intelligence, though in a one-sided way. Its characteristic consists in its possessing deeper insight and a greater power of expression than other minds. In the light it throws upon the subject there is grasped a better comprehension of it than men previously possessed. The subject becomes simplified. Less words are required to explain it. From genius we can form a faint idea of how deeply unfallen man must have seen into the secrets of nature. His was no one-sided view, for all his faculties were in complete harmony.

Even immediately after the fall man possessed intellectual energy to which we are total strangers. We cannot conceive those grand old patriarchs or Rishis bent over a book or inscribing their long life experience of persons and things; not because their language was not sufficiently developed, or that they might not have been in possession of the art of writing, for men in every stage of society found language adequate to the expression of every idea clear to their minds, and men of their years must have understood the symbolism of nature in its deepest import; but, in truth, they had no need whatever of such artificial means. With passions subdued, and unwarped by any of the conventionalities of modern society, and ever filled with the thought of their Creator's intimate presence, with whom they spoke in prayer with simplicity and faith, the ever-changing panorama of nature and young society was a book in which these great and good men read lessons laden with significancy. It is refreshing to contemplate those intellects, fresh, calm, untrammelled, teeming with great and important thoughts, which they transmit, not to moth-eaten parchments, but by word of mouth to a posterity capable of preserving every jot and tittle of the precious legacy. Their dignified bearing and profound science sadly contrast with whaf we are compelled to call the little, hurried, jostling ways, with which so many of the present blindly move along, heedless whither they drift, and caring not, provided they have caught up the prevailing note of the day.

But in these antediluvian or prehistoric times there were two parties: the one, the agricultural and pastoral party, the Sethites of Scripture, of whom we have been speaking; the other, the party that built cities and worked iron and manufactures, and made rapid strides in material civilization, but grew morally corrupt to a fearful extent They are the Cainites. They were too busily occupied in material pursuits and in seeking personal comforts, to make use of a written language; and their life was too vigorous, their energy too great, to require one. They were a proud and haughty race; they were fierce and passionate, and knew no restraint; they made war on the peaceful Sethites and among themselves. Their deeds of prowess, their victories and their heroic leaders -- "the mighty men of old, men of renown"{9} -- they recounted in song and story, that breathed deep-dyed vengeance, and extolled their own greatness and self-sufficiency to the heavens. They were sunk deep in egotism. Nature had few charms for them. She was their slave, which they, by their profound science and intimate knowledge of her secrets, worked upon and made subservient to the gratification of their selfish motives. The spirits of the air waited upon them, as the angels of God waited upon Abraham and Lot. The elements they held under control, for they were acquainted with the laws that govern them. In mind and body they were giants.

A change came over the face of nature. Men ceased to be long-lived, and no longer possessed the energy and experience of former days. Languages were multiplied. However the cause may be explained, it is plain to all who have given the matter consideration, that there is sufficient connection between all the languages on the face of the earth to show that they had a common origin, and that their departure from this origin was not the result of a gradual process, but rather that there are clear indications of an abrupt severing.{10} No matter how far back in the history of a language we go, we find it complete in all its essential parts, and the lapse of centuries or the most intimate intercourse with nations may add to its variety of expression, but will not change its grammar and genius, however barren the language be in grammatical forms or in flexibility and delicacy of expression. These are things, according to W. Von Humboldt, that man "could never have arrived at by the slow and progressive process of experience."{11} For this reason those who consider the Bible a book of myths, as well as those who regard it as of Divine origin, are agreed upon the dispersion of men, and the sundering of a common language into several tongues. Then came the dawn of a written literature. The comparative shortness of life, desire of fame, and degeneracy of intellect led men to seek means of transmitting their traditions by sign and symbol.{12} The oldest form of transmitting ideas is by means of picture-writing. In course of time, the pictures came to be reduced to mere outlines but faintly resembling their originals and suggesting abstract ideas. The Chinese have never gone beyond this form of writing.{13} Afterwards, men began to make these images the graphic symbols of sounds. At first they represented whole words; later on they stood for articulations or syllables. Thus was the Japanese writing developed out of the Chinese. From the syllabic signs were derived the elementary sounds known as the alphabet. The transition from one to the other of these forms was a slow process, generally induced by intimate relations with another people, which required a medium of communication; and each form represents a higher grade of civilization. This process was evolved by the science of Egypt.{14} Far back in the obscure past was the evolution completed.{15} "The letters of the alphabet," says the most recent authority on this subject, "are older than the pyramids -- older probably than any other existing monument of civilization, with the possible exception of the signs of the zodiac."{16} From Egypt the Phoenicians received their alphabet; this primitive Semitic alphabet is the source from which all others are derived. All the variations in Greek and Roman and Gothic letters, in the Hebrew and Arabic and Nagari alphabets, may be traced to the genius and language of the peoples using them. Thus it is that our A B C has a history and a philosophy, and most interesting are they as throwing light upon a people's characteristic traits and a people's degree of civilization.

Diversity of races and languages caused literature to be multiplied. Different peoples would so enshrine a fact that occurred in the distant past -- an idea prevalent in the old homestead prior to the dispersion -- in a halo of inventions congenial to their dispositions as shaped by climate and occupation, that the fact, the idea, would assume with each a distinct appearance. Hence the diversity of mythologies based upon the same ideas among the Aryan races.{17} Varied as are these races, divergent as is the bent of genius of each, radically opposed as are their individual characters as separate peoples, it is wonderful to see within what a small compass might be included all that is fundamental in their literatures, and how agreed are Kelt and Teuton, Scandinavian and Hindu, in the myths and sagas that have been floating among each for thousands of years. We ask no better proof for the unity of the human family.

Tracing the first dawnings of poetry the world over, we find that all of them have a common origin. All began with the celebration of religious rites and mysteries; this celebration included the choral ode accompanied by music and dance. The ode was at first very simple and consisted of short ejaculations and many repetitions of the same phrase. But what it lacked in expression was supplemented by the music and the dance. In one of the ancient Chinese works the three forms of emotional expression are thus graded: "Poetry is the product of earnest thought. Thought cherished in the mind becomes earnest; exhibited in words it becomes poetry. The feelings move inwardly, and are embodied in words. When words are insufficient for them, recourse is had to sighs and exclamations. When sighs and exclamations are insufficient for them, recourse is had to the prolonged utterance of song. When these prolonged utterances of song are insufficient for them, unconsciously the hands begin to move and the feet to dance."{18} And so, among the Chinese and the Hebrews;{19} whilst with Hindu and Greek and Roman, everywhere, is the choral hymn the first literary form that poetic thought assumed.{20} Everywhere, out of the choral ode with its accompaniments of music and dance was evolved the drama.{21}

{1} Herbert Spencer.

{2} Darwin.

{3} Mr. John Fiske.

{4} "Aurea prima sata est aetas, quae vindice nullo {5} Aperçu de l'Histoire d'Egypte.

{6} History of Architecture, vol. i., p. 83.

{7} "El pecado original es un misterio, pero este misterio explica el mundo entero." -- Filosofia Fund., vol. i., p. 532.

{8} Philosophy of History, Bohn's ed., lect. x., P. 279. {9} Genesis vi. 4.

{10} Max Müller says: "We have examined all possible forms which language can assume, and we have now to ask, can we reconcile with these three distinct forms, the radical, the terminational, and the inflectional, the admission of one common origin of human speech? I answer decidedly, Yes." Science of Language, vol. i., pp. 328, 329. See also CARD. WISEMAN, Lect. on Science and Revealed Religion, lect. ii., p. 78. {11} Je ne crois pas qu'il faille supposer chez les nations auxquelles on est redevable de ces langues admirables des facultés plus qu'humaines, on admettre qu'elles n'ont point suivi Ia marche progressive laquelle les nations sont assujettics; mais je suis penétré de la conviction qu'il ne faut pas méconnaitre cette force vraiment divine que recélent les facultés humaines, ce génie créateur des nations, surtout dans l'état primitif, où toutes les idées, et même les facultés de L'âme, empruntent une force plus vive de Ia nouveauté des impressions, où l'homme peut pressentir des combinaisons auxquelles il ne serait jamais arrivé par la marche lente et progressive de l'expérience. -- Lettre M. Abel-Remusat, Werke, vol. vii., pp. 336-7.

{12} See Plato, Phaedrus, lviii., 274.

{13} Edkins, Introduction to the Study of Chinese Characters; London, 1876.

{14} De Rouge, Memoire sur l' Origine Egyptienne de l' Alphabet Phenicien, Paris, 1874.

{15} The inscription of King Sent -- from 4000 to 4700 13. c. -- is the first known written record. Two of our letters -- n. and d. -- are derived from this inscription. -- Taylor, An Account of the Origin and Development of Letters. London, 1883, vol. i, p. 61.

{16} Ibid., p. 62.

{17} We designate as the Aryan races those peoples who speak the Indo-European family of languages. The parent stock is supposed to have originally inhabited the territory of ancient Persia. The Hindu and Persian of old called themselves Aryans. The examination of words common to all the languages that sprung from this Aryan source, goes to show the original people to have been peace-loving, attached to the soil, given to tillage, and passionately devoted to Nature-worship. Lassen localized the primitive home at the source of the Oxus and the Jaxartes. But in 1886, Dr. Penka (Herkunft der Arier) gave out the hypothesis that Southera Scandinavia was the primitive Aryan home. Prof A. H. Sayce holds the same view. (Contemporary Review, July 1889). The Asiatic origin still seems to us the more probable. See Burnouf Essai sur le Veda, chap. v. pp. 117-146.

{18} Shih King Great Preface, trans. by Dr. Legge.

{19} Deut. xxxi, 19 ; Exod xv. 20. Exod. xxxii. 17-19; 1 Sam. vi. 14, 20; 1 Sam. xix. 22.

{20} Burnouf, Essai sur le Véda, p. 31.

{21} Bazin, Théâtre Chinois, intro. pp. ix. x.; B. H. Chamberlain, Classical Poetry of the Japanese, p. 13. In India the drama was called Nalaka from Nata, a dancer. Weber, History of Indian Literature, p. 196.

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