JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter X.
The Law of Thought.

THE history of literature is the history of ideas and their influence. They appear and disappear; but in obedience to law. What Montesquieu says of political changes is equally applicable to intellectual ones. "As men have always the same passions," says this only too pagan philosopher, "the occasions that produce great changes differ, but their causes are always the same."{1} There is Phoenicia of old. She was mistress of the sea, the queen of Commerce, the synonym of all that was precious in silks, dyes,{2} and the like. Her people were wealthy, enterprising, and nursed in luxury. They were also materialists in their views. The philosophy that can be considered theirs is based on the doctrine of atoms; it is materialistic. So it is with that nation in modern times which is the mistress of commerce. With her, too, originated that modern materialism that infected Europe during the eighteenth century, Her philosophy -- the philosophy of Locke, and Hume, and Bacon, and Herbert Spencer, the only philosophy that is characteristically hers -- is materialistic in its principles and in its application. It pervades much that has been since written in English literature. Materialistic criteria run through the poetry, the fiction, the philosophy of England in the estimate of the age, its progress and civilization, as well as in the ideal of perfect happiness drawn in these subjects. It is so, under like circumstances, at all times and in all places. The laws of thought are as constant as the movements of the spheres of the heavens. Christianity has not changed them. It does not alter man's nature; it ennobles, purifies, directs it; but it is still the same human nature, in which are inherent the same passions, and possessed of the same fundamental tendency of thought.

We hit upon an idea; we consider it our own, and publish it to the world as such. Some one more deeply versed in letters, takes a dusty tome from the shelf of his library, and reads the same thought differently expressed. Bacon the worldly chancellor, and Bacon the studious Franciscan, are both depositaries of the same idea. Two centuries before Luther struck the note of a religious revolt, Wyckliffe hoisted the same banner. So the same seed produces in different countries the same fruit, but modified in each case by variety of soil, climate, and cultivation. But to produce anything, the seed must be there; it must have been planted. And these germs of thought that spring up and thrive so diversely in various intellectual soils, whence are they, and by whom planted? We have watched them pass from the East to the West; we have seen Grecian and Roman cultivate them; we have observed that the child of the forest receives them, and combines them with his primitive notions, even as did before him those he received them from, and, fostered by him, they produce a fruit alike and different -- alike in kind, different in color and flavor. In China, in Hindostan, in Greece, in Germany, let us but go deep enough, and we will find the same primitive germs. One side of a truth is presented at one time; at another, we are given another side. Yesterday, an idea was popular; to-day, it dies out of men's minds; a thousand years hence, when called to light by the vivifying influences that first acted upon it, it springs into favor once more, and becomes the actuating thought of an age.

Truth, then, is independent of man. The power is his to discover, develop, and apply it; but he cannot create it. That belongs to the Infinite Intelligence alone. He it is who creates it, and who creates the light of our reason by which to perceive it He is the Word, by virtue of which we have power of speech and understanding -- "He who from the beginning -- ... from the foundation of the world -- sowed nutritious seeds; He who in each age rained down the Lord, the Word;"{3} that Word from which are all things, and which all things speak;{4} that Word whose splendor is reflected in the beauties of language and literature, though brokenly and dimly so, on account of man's darkness of understanding and the presence of the human spirit which absorbs the Divine radiance. Now, truth being independent of man, man might be forever on this globe and never know truth unless his intellect were predisposed to recognize it when presented, and to apprehend it as such. Truth, then, has been communicated to man, perhaps directly, probably indirectly, through the medium of the laws to which the Creator both of man and of truth subjected the human intellect.{5} Thus is man from the beginning a creature of education. Therefore it is that no people has ever by itself been able to rise from barbarism to civilization. No nation, of its own accord, and without external influence, has ever developed a literature. And the universal history of literature goes to show that the sum of natural truth is a constant quantity. This is the most general law of thought Reason further confirms it; for at all times, and in all places, the material world, humanity, the general relations of life, the social problems arising therefrom, and their solutions, the questionings of the soul, are all the same; the same truths are evolved, and the same thoughts appear in different garbs. "Nothing under the sun is new; neither is any man able to say: Behold, this is new, for it hath already gone before in the ages that were before us."{6}

{1} Comme les hommes ont eu dans tous les temps les mêmes passions, les occasions qui produisent les grands changements sont différentes, mais les causes sont toujours les mêmes. -- Grand. et Dec. de Rome, chap. i.

{2} e.g. psoiniz, and all its derivatives.

{3} Clement of Alexandria, Strom., lib. i., cap., vii.

{4} Imitation, bk. i., ch. iii.

{5} Summa, I a. 1 ae. Quaest. 87, ad. I.

{6} Ecclesiastes, chap. i., 10.

<< ======= >>