JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter III.
The Religious Basis of Literature.

PRIOR to the creative act, the archetypes of things spiritual and material existed in the Divine Mind; and as that is simple activity, they and It were one. Then God was alL But God saw these archetypes in the Word, and by the Word did they become actual existences distinct from the Divinity. Their ideal therefore is the expression of the Word. But all literature has its significancy and power according to the clearness with which it expresses the ideal; and the nearer the ideal approaches the Word -- the higher it leads upwards thereto -- the more powerful is its expression. It is not by reason of man's being created that he is a religious being. The cattle of the field are equally creatures of God, but they have no religious susceptibilities. Religion is meaningless when applied to them. It is because man has been created with a soul capable of reasoning, loving, and recognizing its First Cause and its Final End, that he is a religious being; for it is by reason of that noble consciousness that he communes with God. But the recognition of God he has through the Word, and through the Word also does he address God. Nor is there any other way even for the Divinity to commune. The Father speaks with Himself through His Word, and with men through His Holy Spirit.. But without the Word there were no Holy Spirit. Therefore religion has its origin in the Word. And it is to be looked for that the highest forms of literature will be inspired by the relations of man with his Maker.

1. The basis of literature, then, in its supreme efforts, is religion; for while literature has its roots in humanity, it draws its, life and nourishment, and receives its strength and greatness from religion. Every priesthood has been its preserver and promoter. Under the inspiration of religion have the sacred books of all nations attempted to explain the mystery of man -- his origin and destiny -- and to reconcile heaven with earth. Within its sanctuary have canticles of praise and adoration wafted their agreeable incense to the Supreme Power. The poet, the philosopher, the orator, the historian, are one and all influenced by its doctrines in their writings and actions.

Literature deals with the elements of humanity. It appeals to some, it studies others; others again it exemplifies. Now religion pervades every part of man's nature. Its hand moves over the fibres of his heart, and changes their native discord into harmonious music; its voice chides him in wrong-doing, and speaks the word of approval when he has achieved the good action; its doctrines shape his course through life; whilst its ceremonies surround him in the cradle, are the pageants of every important step he takes, and still solicitous for him, accompany him to the grave. Only in the undimmed light of faith which it sheds around him, does he know himself, the inner recesses of his nature, his various relations and his destiny. Without that light he is a purposeless being, groping in the dark through the labyrinthine ways of life; whereas its presence in his soul shows his every action to possess a bearing and a significancy which time cannot measure, and eternity alone can fathom. Here is a powerful determining principle in the life of man. It is the office of literature to consider it as such; and as such has it been considered. All the creations of genius -- Ulysses, AEneas, Hamlet -- have acted under the influence of their religious tenets. Hence it is that fates and furies and titular deities figured so largely in pagan literature, and that the wise course of an all-ruling Providence is traced upon the pages of modern Christian authors.

2. But the tendency of the age is to do without religion, and -- must it be said? -- without God. Taine expresses this tendency when he tells the English people that their God inconveniences them.{1} This might be true if God were, as Taine and his master Comte hold, a fiction of the brain and a prejudice of education. Now, one of England's most gifted son's{2} did consider God an inconvenience, and lived without taking Him into account; but he ended by making a human remains -- a reminiscence -- the limit of his thought. He who considered the Infinite Being too narrow for his thinking, in the limited nature of a woman discovered the source of inspiration, the supreme good after which his soul yearned; in a word, his all. Not being able to destroy the instinctive aspirations of his soul for its Creator, he makes to himself an idol of one no greater than he, -- frail and mortal like him, -- and lavishes upon her all the worship due the Divinity.{3} Man is finite in his nature and personality; his intellect cannot compass the infinite; it only apprehends it; still the infinite is ever present to him; in thought he moves through it;{4} he catches glimpses of its sublimities; he sings of its glories. But its immensity does not weigh down his soul. He calmly faces it; and while contemplating it, questionings arise in the human breast, which prove that the infinite is not a creature of the human intellect; for humanity comprehends it as little as it does its own existence. Humanity is more logical than the atheist. Leaving him to his cavillings, it recognizes One to whom creation is no enigma, and who holds infinitude in Himself.

This tendency to do without religion in literature and in life, is based upon the assumption that human nature is self-sufficient. Under another order of things man might have been so created that he would be content with the finite and the tangible, would never know or feel a want beyond what they could supply, and would live satisfied with the sufficiency of his nature. But constituted as he now is, man's destiny is completed only in the sphere of the supernatural order. And this order it is not in his power to abandon. To live in it is his destiny, and he can be suspended from it only by the Being who traced out for him his course. He may live as though there were but the natural law; but he is never exclusively confined to its action. It is supplemented and its efficiency increased by the law of grace. Being possessed of a free will, man is a meriting being. Every deed he performs -- every intention he forms -- is taken into account. That is an erroneous view of things that represents God as aloof from His creatures; He is ever intimately present to the soul, by the preservative act with which He is present in the Cosmos, and by the sanctifying grace with which He binds every rational nature willing to be bound more closely to Himself.

The assumption of the self-sufficiency of human nature is due either to the rejection or to the misunderstanding of the teleological order. Men bring into moral and metaphysical discussions the habits of reasoning contracted in treating the physical sciences; and as in these latter, since the days of Bacon, they have discarded the doctrine of final cause, in dealing with the former, they omit the idea of design. They see no purpose in life beyond the immediate supplying of present wants; they are content to regard themselves as the product of an unconscious force; with Strauss, they "no longer recognize a self-conscious Creator."{5} But to deny a final cause is to deny all design, and therefore a designer. This is a practical denial of an efficient First Cause; and leads either to pantheism, by making all things manifestations of the great All, or to atheism, which reduces this great All to a blind force, consisting of "the one essence of forces and laws which manifest and fulfill themselves."{6} In either case, the absence of design implies the absence of cause; and he who refuses to admit final cause is logically compelled to deny a First Cause, and to eliminate altogether from his philosophy the problem of causation. And this the Positivist has done.

But those who, while rejecting final causes, would still adhere to a First Cause, say that because man works with design, gives no reason to infer that the great Primal Cause would do the same. "This," they say, adopting the language of Strauss, "by no means follows, and Nature herself proves the fallacy of the assumption that adaptation can only be the work of conscious intelligence. "{7} This position has only one logical outlet, and that same is a mere hypothesis: it is that Nature is the origin of our intelligence, and imparts to it all its characteristic qualities. To say so is to identify Nature with the God of nature; the two are made one; and all that we see and apprehend are manifestations of the great Be-All. We reject the assumption, because it reduces our reason to an instinct, leaves us with no control over ourselves, destroys all freedom of action; and in doing so, contradicts our innermost convictions. One man performs an action, another at the same moment is doing the contradictory of it; where one affirms the other denies; but the great Be-All is simultaneously acting and asserting itself through both; that is, it contradicts itself; which is admitting that it can annihilate itself and still continue to be. Here is neither law nor force; here is only absurdity. Now, as reason will not admit an absurdity as the basis of nature, the source of life and the inspiration of literature, let us look elsewhere for an explanation that will reconcile exception and rule, the atheistic tendencies of the age with the instincts of humanity.

3. There are traces of an intelligent being working with design in the material universe; there are consciousness and instinct in the insect as well as in the brute creation; and in man, besides consciousness and instinct, there is a rational soul capable of loving, of making abstractions and generalizations, and of evolving in language continuous and connected thought. Now, while brute instinct shares with the human mind, a certain capacity for particularizing, it is the exclusive property of the latter to generalize, to deal with essences and to possess science; the one can never be confounded with the other. Here it may be said that this proves nothing; for man, though superior to other visible forms of creation, is still one with "the Cosmos whence he springs, from which also he derives that spark of reason which he misuses."{8} To this we reply: Man has conscious power of adapting a means to an and; and he can vary both means and end. All other forms of animal life are limited in their power of adapting means to an end, to the extent of preserving their life and their species. With them it is an instinct, guided and directed with little more freedom of action than is the machine by him who makes it. But this guidance is not in the gift of the Cosmos; for according to those who object to the distinction, the Cosmos is bound by her own laws, and cannot make exception to them. She cannot give and take at the same time. If the brute and the human intelligence are one in kind, then ought they be governed by the same law. But since it is otherwise -- since man, over and above the organic and emotional powers which he shares with the brute, possesses a pure reason in which the brute has no part -- we conclude that the source of action, for reason as well as for instinct, is other than the Cosmos. The Power that placed in man's hands complete control over his actions and their motives, holds that control in His own hands, with all other things of life, and makes the bird build its nest and the beaver construct its dam, in the same fashion to-day as they did a tbousand years ago, and as they will a thousand years hence. Now, as an effect can never contain more than its efficient cause, for the latter must always be more perfect than the former; and since man has design in his actions, that Power which is the Primal Cause of all things must also have design, and must have therefore created for a purpose.

Man has therefore been created with a destiny to fulfill. And such is the testimony of his consciousness. This is the meaning of those yearnings after he knows not what, that sense of dissatisfaction he is continually seeking to confine, that effort with which he is ever grasping at, never seizing, an ideal standard of goodness and beauty. And the fact of this unsettled condition and constant struggle proves that man's destiny is not fulfilled in the plane of the natural order. If he lives in forgetfulness of any other, it is because the finite order is ever present to him, and it is always within his power to enjoy the good it offers him. Still, in the midst of this enjoyment -- surrounded by everything calculated to gratify the heart -- a Solomon will cry out: "Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity;"{9} while saintly characters, in poverty and privation, -- midst annoyance and suffering, -- rejoice that it is even so, and exclaim, "Thy will be done, O Lord." There is underlying all this a fact of deep import. Its explanation solves the problem of man and nature.

Creation is finite; the Creator is infinite. In the understanding of their relation is the solution sought. And that relation is one of two-fold union. Besides their dialectic union in the creative act, and in conservation which is a continuation of that act, they are still more intimately brought together by a mystical and substantial union of the Divinity with that one of His creatures which embodies in itself both the spiritual and material elements of creation. This union is accomplished in the Incarnation. And the Word was made flesh.{10} Therein is man generically united with his Maker; thereby is he raised above the sphere of the purely natural order into a higher and better grade of existence; and it is only in that higher place he can work out his destiny. It was so prior to that supreme union. In anticipation of it was man then saved. It is so at present Only by reason of its merits can he attain to eternal life.

In the Incarnation of the Word is the secret of life. It explains the mystery of man. It gives meaning to those yearnings of his soul that seem never satisfied. They are aspirations for the infinite Being. Humanity, in the hypostatic union with the Divinity, has tasted the Supreme Good, and ardently desires to rest in its enjoyment. That the individual does not always wish for the consummation of this union that he may even show a repugnance for it -- argues nothing against its reality. It arises from his present position in the Cosmos. As has already been remarked, man's nature is always present to him; his perception of the supernatural order is faint, because though individually predestined to it, the act of union has been accomplished generically; he therefore finds repugnance in turning from the clearly asserted order of genesis, to the more vaguely though no less truly defined sphere of palingenesis. Hence it is that so many ignore the latter, and live but for the former. Hence too, the repugnance mystics say they experience when first brought to the contemplation of the Divinity.

4. Thus, the incarnate Word is the principle of creation; therefore of life; therefore of literature. Having been dignified in His Divine Person, humanity imbibes therein the elements of its material and spiritual progress. There is no true civilization except through the Word. But literature goes hand in hand with culture, refinement, civilization. Indeed, it is one of the chief elements, and standards of civilization. As such, it also shares the influence of the Word. In its own imperfect way it speaks the Word. But the Word asserts Its influence through religion. Therefore, in considering the nature of things, we find religion an essential factor in the development of thought. Its spiritual action determines man's real condition. It looms upon his horizon, tingeing the rising and setting of his ideas, and throwing a world of light upon some of the grandest views that ever illuminated the ways of his life. The tendency to secularize man and teach him to ignore the supernatural order is ill-founded. It would extinguish the life of his life. It takes man to be what he is not, and accordingly warps his whole being into a false system of action. Under the hand of secularization the music of his nature becomes noise; its harmonies speak discord; and his existence, instead of mingling in sweet accord with the rhythm of the spheres, recoils upon him in infinite torture. Out of place, then, is any theory of life that would banish the religious element from education.

And for this reason, the suggestion of Strauss to substitute poetry and music for the Bible and religious worship, is to be rejected. What this arch-priest of unbelief says of the difficulty of understanding the Bible is true enough. It is in itself a life-study. Still, it is one of the mediums by which God has deigned to express His Will to man; and in His Church He has deposited the true sense and the authority to explain. But poetry and music are poor substitutes for prayer and reliance upon a Providence. Prayer has always been efficacious. It dries up the tear of misery; it soothes the pain in suffering; it strengthens the wavering will; it influences zeal; it makes man strong to go forth and earnestly do his duty, were it to carry him to the ends of the earth; it raises him above his native weakness, ennobles his character, and spiritualizes his nature. Withdraw from men the power of prayer, and naught is to be witnessed but the cold selfishness of worldliness, and the unimpeded impetuosity of passion. It is to open the floodgates of vice and corruption upon society. The starving poor man will no longer keep his hands from the property of his more fortunate neighbor. The feeble widow finds no further comfort in providing for her helpless children. Under the influence of prayer, she has toiled by day and watched by night in order to give them the necessaries of life. But since her eyes no longer look heavenward in faith and hope, and her tongue has refused to call upon God, and her knee has ceased to bend to His name, she seeks rather herself, and solicitude for her little ones grows daily more faint. But this is a class of people that has not entered as an element into the calculations of Strauss. And yet the poor and miserable constitute the large majority of mankind. Fares it better with the favored few?

Man owes it to society to cultivate his senses. Through these all art appeals to the imagination. In their cultivation he finds recreation; their enjoyment gives him rest from the more serious functions of life. But assuredly the portals of the soul do not make up the whole man; their improvement and exercise must be the least part of life. Ernst ist das Leben, heiter ist die Kunst.{11} Life is earnest, for it seeks in time the repose of eternity; art is serene, for in expressing the ideal it has already touched upon that repose. Man, then, cannot rest in art. He must be up and doing. Higher motives regulate the cultivation of sense and intellect. It is well to commune with the great masters of thought, to become penetrated with the words of wisdom that have dropped from their pens, and to take in the glorious pictures of life and death, of time and eternity, of happiness and suffering, with which their pages are filled. But all this is not done for the sake merely of reading or of polishing the intellect. These men did not write with any such intention. They wrote because a great thought oppressed them, and they considered it worth man's knowing. Ideas are not simply to amuse. They do not confine themselves to the library. They become facts as soon as they filter into the general intelligence. Wycliffe's wranglings with the regular clergy, and his theorizings about dominion and power, substantiated themselves in Lollardism and the insurrection of Wat Tyler. Luther's doctrines received their logical expression in the Peasants' war in Germany. Voltaire's irreligious teachings found form in the revolution of '89. Ideas are of value only in proportion as they strengthen man in the battle of life. But the ideas of the great masters -- of Plato, of Aquinas, of Dante, of Shakespeare -- have power to move by reason of the order of things that Strauss would reverse. They have all come from above. They have meaning only in the belief of a spiritual world and a future life. They cease, therefore, to be motive-powers with the disciples of unbelief. They may still continue to supply food for the fancy and to please the aesthetic sense; but they have lost their power of giving direction to life. For this, man has to fall back on self-interest. In self has he to find inspiration. Towards self will his aspirations converge; for according to the new philosophy, in self does the Cosmos find its consciousness. But man's soul thirsts for something more than self. Nor will music supply that desire. The influence of music is not to be ignored. It awakens sweet reminiscences; it raises man out of the consciousness of suffering and misery; it makes him forget the cares of earth; its rapturous tones entwine themselves in the soul, and sway it to and fro. Recreating and instructive may be the opera; soothing is the symphony; delightful is the well-executed sonata; soul-stirring is the simple national air; but when the sonata is played, the ballad sung, the opera over, man finds himself fallen back upon the rugged ways of life; his nerves have been calmed, and his imagination pleased, only to make all the greater the contrast between the ideal life into which he was transported, and the actual life which he has to face. The shock thus given to his nerves tends rather to irritate than to soothe. And if beset with difficulties in his struggles for the comforts of life, he worries and makes himself miserable. Nor is he who is rich in the world's goods and beyond the necessity of toiling, any the happier under the new order of things. He is liable to make pleasure the business of life. And no man is more miserable. A sense of weariness, of which he never can rid himself, so interferes with his enjoyments as to render life insupportable. That is a shallow view of man that would limit his education to the cultivation of imagination and sensibility. Beneath the delicate nerve, the exquisite taste, the refined sentiment, will lie whole wastes of human nature, giving out briars and thorns; will smoulder unchecked the fires of passion; and it will require but the occasion to make of the one so educated a moral wreck.

That which unbelief would substitute for religion is the creature of religion. The Church is the inspiration of all that is grand in music. Beneath her shadow has it grown into its present noble proportions. The notes of its gamut speak its origin.{12} And when it leaves the influence of the Church -- when it becomes secularized -- it grows sickly; it can only give us the effeminate strains of an Offenbach. In order to be satisfied with such music, men's souls must cease to reverberate with the echoes of Palestrina and Mozart and Beethoven; the solemn grandeur of the Gregorian Chant must no longer please; the sublime and the beautiful must have vanished before the frivolous and the fantastic. So, too, with the poetry and general literature without a religious basis; they will prove abortive. They will give a false direction to education, and in their misapprehension of the ideal, they will ignore the infinite, circumscribe themselves in the finite, and live content in the expression of the tangible, the sensuous and the material. Flashes of great thought may sometimes shine forth in them; but they belong not to them; they are reminiscences of the literature that was inspired by religion.

{1} Votre Dieu vous gêne; il est la cause suprême, et vous n'osez raisonner sur les causes par respect pour lui. -- La Littérature Anglaise., t. iv.

{2} John Stuart Mill.

{3} "Speaking of his wife, he says "Her memory is to me a religion, and her approbation the standard by which, summing up as it does all worthiness, I endeavor to regulate my life." -- Autobiography, p. 251.

{4} Penser, c'est se mouvoir dans l'infini. -- LACORDAIRE Conferences et Toulouse, p. 8.

{5} Der Alte and der Neue Glaube, III. , 65.

{6} So Strauss defines Cosmos. -- Der Alte und der Neuc Glaube, II., § 45.

{7} Ibid., II., § 36.

{8} Strauss -- Der Alte und der Neue Glaube, II., § 41.

{9} Ecclesiastes i. 2.

{10} St. John i. 14.

{11} "Life is earnest, art is tranquil." -- Schiller.

{12} They are said to have taken their names from the first syllables of words in the first verse of the beautiful Church hymn in honor of St. John the Baptist:

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