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An Address by
IN this solemn moment, at the end of fifty-five years, my mind goes back to a certain May evening in 1876, when I saw before me an assembly of men and women who had summoned me to state explicitly the nature of the proposed Ethical Movement outlined by me in a previous public address. That evening the Society was founded. Of those who were present, the charter members of the society, I am, to the best of my knowledge, to-day the sole survivor. I am as it were the memory of the society. With deep gratitude I think of those who first asked me to lead them along a new path, and who followed so devotedly. They have all passed away, and others, thousands by this time, who succeeded them have passed -- a great procession ! I greet them in meditative hours. Their faces are not mournful. Their extended arms point forward. They were interested in the future -- in something great to be. And they put their trust, not in a person but in an idea. From the first they resented the imputation that this could be a merely personal movement, they believed rather that it was destined to acquire a universal significance.
I have decided, in celebration of this anniversary, to speak of the inner history of this society and of the movement. With its outward history you are acquainted. It did not remain a New York society alone. There are the five societies in the United States, the societies in England and on the continent. There are echoes of the movement in the distant East, in Japan. But this outward expansion, though not negligible, must yet appear insignificant to those who appraise a movement by the numerical test. Quantitative memberships ebb and flow. In the long last it is only quality that tells.
I have said that I would speak of the inner sense of the movement. What was the motive that appealed to those who first joined it? I answer: it was the desire to rid their lives of the burden of falseness -- the burden of ceremonies of religion which to them were not true. They felt this especially in critical moments of their lives, as when at the obsequies of one beloved the Christian minister would say in the name of Jesus: "I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live" -- that is to say, immortality on the condition of faith in Jesus; or among orthodox Jews, when at the burial the survivor passes between the ranks of his friends, and they say to him: "Be comforted in the midst of those who mourn for Jerusalem," though it no longer even incurred to him to mourn for Jerusalem. Or again, the call for supernatural intervention in the anguished moment of suspense for the recovery of the sick. They desired to shift the burden of falsity from themselves, because falsity is unlivable; and for their children they wished that nothing unlivable should be put into their minds, that those young beings should not have the picture of life obscured by a mist and cloud of untruth.
So much for the more external practices, the ceremonies of the prevailing religions. But beyond these, there were the creeds, embodying a certain philosophy of life, a certain account of the universe and of its origin, also declaring the place that belongs to the Bible, to revelation, etc. If truth was to be the test, a truthful way of living the demand, did these creeds bear the test! More than that -- was any creed hereafter to be accepted! A creed has sometimes been likened to a sarcophagus like that in which the early relics of Alexander the Great were deposited -- of costly stone perhaps adorned with precious symbols, containing within it the remains of what was once power and glory, but is now only dust and ashes.
This is the freethinker's view of the creeds. But is not acceptable to me. For every one of the chief religions has some element of truth, some vital element in it. This has been fearfully overlaid with superstition. But what now matters is to free the grain from the chaff, to rescue as much as possible of the wisdom and the moral insight that past generations have stored in their religions, not to allow any result of the effort of mankind toward truth to perish, to preserve truth but at the same time to restate it in such fashion as to fit it into the larger truth that has since been gained. I say that each of the religions contains some gem which must be rescued from the dross that obscures its brilliance -- some gem that should be saved so as to be placed in a new setting as a jewel in the crown of humanity. On this account, to tell distinctly what our movement was not -- it never was an iconoclastic movement. Even icons, as we have lately observed in the Russian exhibit in this city, have a certain beauty; even idols, statues of the gods like the Olympian Zeus and the Hermes, have a certain greatness -- only they must not be worshiped, as if they were more than similitudes. Our movement was never a Thomas Paine or Ingersoll movement, shattering the beliefs that men held holy, devastating movements since they too often destroyed the sensitiveness of men to whatever is not palpable, not of the senses.
In the very first volume of lectures published, which contrasted Creed and Deed, stressing deed as against creed -- in that very volume you will find appreciations of the great religions of the past, reverence for the old masters hand in hand with aspirations for the new. Nevertheless, I said emphatically, not creed but deed. Why not creed, if it contains an element of truth? Why this sharp antithesis? Because a creed expresses a certain view of the universe and of human life that is supposed to be absolutely true, true for all time. Creed is a Procrustes' bed. If the facts of life do not fit it, they must be stretched, if they overpass the creed they must be contracted into it. And this is true even of the most liberal creeds. Thus to-day, after every ancient dogma has been rejected by them, liberal teachers still insist (it is the "last ditch") that the ethical verities of Jesus are and will ever be unsurpassable. Again, the creed is a formula, something that can be recited, a profession of faith, and experience shows only too clearly that the profession may be on the lips or even in the mind and yet remain without effect in practice. Deed then, not creed, meant the effect on actual conduct to be the test of any philosophy of life. It did not mean, it never was intended to mean, blunt empiricism, action without the guidance of thinking. On the contrary, deeper, fresher thinking on the ever-lasting problems was challenged, in order that the conduct, the doings of men might become nobler. Action without thinking is blind, thinking without action to test it is footless. But there must be no inflexible statements, no inelasticity of the mind in attacking the problems. Is what you think as to the meaning of man's existence true? The test is: is your philosophy vital, is it livable?
The world is sick in many ways. A philosophy of life is like the prescription of a physician intended to produce health. To offer this philosophy as a creed is like asking a patient to swallow the paper on which the prescription is written, in the expectation that a cure will result. The right way is to compound the ingredients prescribed in the doctor's formula, to take in the medicine, and then to decide whether it makes for health and healing.
I have contrasted the movement with the orthodoxies, both fundamentalist and liberal; let me contrast it briefly with the betterment movements, the socialisms, the efforts for the fairer distribution of the products of labor -- the housing movement, the child labor movement, the peace movement -- in all these matters the people who came under the influence of our movement were alert, interested exceedingly, and not without influence.
But there was a definite point of view that distinguished us in regard to the betterment movements. It was explicitly stated from the first, and could not possibly be misapprehended, that the order of means and ends in the conduct of men must be the reverse of that which as a rule obtains. For morality, or any advance in morality, is commonly regarded as a means and mere happiness as the end. Do the right, even the difficult right, in order that you may have as your reward for yourself or others -- happiness. In contrast to this I stated most earnestly and set it down in our publications that our movement is inspired by the belief that the ethical end is itself the supreme end of life to which every other is subordinate, that right relations between men and women, between employers and employees, between people and people, are not to be regarded as the means for making mankind happy, but that right relations are supremely worth while on their own account, that to act rightly is to do the right for right's sake. Not that happiness is underrated, or that we affect to be so superhuman as to despise the things that make for joy. But in the first place we realize that one cannot guarantee happiness. There are too many vicissitudes, too many unforeseen casualties, too many attacks from without, too many bereavements, too many failures of strength. Of course to the extent of our power we endeavor to give the cup of happiness to those we love -- crosswise, as I like to think of it. I not seeking my happiness, but receiving it from the other, and he or she not seeking theirs, but receiving it from me, an interchange of the wine of life. But even so, I should say that to make another, precisely one whom we love, just happy, to have only that in mind, the joy of that life, is to think not highly enough of the beloved person. I heard a man say -- "It is my utmost aim to give my wife every luxury, to gratify her every wish in the matter of attire, in the matter of adornment, in the exquisiteness of her environment." How then does the man think of his wife? Is it as a being to be surrounded with everything that flatters the sense and thereby suffocates the soul? Happiness on the other hand when rightly understood may be itself a means toward spirituality -- the joy of life, the beauty of life, may be the pedestal on which to erect the statue, the earthly harmonies and perfections may be suggestive of that supreme ethical perfection which we are pledged to strive for.
Therefore, in every movement for the improvement of conditions, the cachet of the Ethical Movement has been this: that we have kept the ethical end in mind for which these improved conditions are the means -- better homes, yes, but not only for the comfort, the brightness, the little garden perhaps; but because these necessities or amenities are propitious conditions for the family life as ethically it should be lived. Not the rescuing of the child from the mill and the mine only for the sake of the free development of his physical and mental life, but because the freedom to grow mentally and physically is a condition of the child's manifesting the worth that is potential in him, not the relief of the oppressed from the oppressor merely that they may breathe a deeper breath, but because the state of being oppressed and the state of the oppressor too are hostile to the development of the worth that is latent in man. So I have ever insisted that as Christianity says: "Forgive your enemies," we shall say: Side with your enemies, be on the side of the oppressor, on the side, namely, of that which is not the oppressiveness in him; liberate him too from the tyranny he exercises.
There are some who maintain that the satisfaction of conscience is itself a kind of pleasure, and therefore that we ought not to criticize pleasure as the supreme object of existence. There are higher and lower pleasures, they say, -- pleasures of conscience are preferred by some. But I think this is mere sophistry. There is a kind of serenity possible amid great physical and spiritual anguish, the "peace that passeth understanding," but that is not pleasure in the sense in which the word is commonly understood. Socrates was serene, but he was not happy when he drank the hemlock cup. Jesus was not happy on the cross. And to speak of one of the great martyrs of science, Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600 at Rome -- his mood was indeed exalted, but would you say that he was happy when the smoke and the flames gathered about and smothered him? Joy is one of the means of spiritual advance if rightly used, but suffering is another, the more poignant, potent means.
There is one more distinction which it is important to draw. Are we a religious movement? I have already in substance answered that question when I said that a philosophy of life is necessary as a guide to conduct. A religion is a kind of philosophy, but it is not the only one. Like every other philosophy it has to be tested, approved or rejected according to its influence on the ennoblement of men in all their relations.
Now, as the initiator and first Leader of the movement, I would say that I was moved and am moved by a religious impulse. I felt myself to be the channel of a spiritual principle that operates in and through men. What strength I have had has been derived from that. All the influence that I ever exercised is due to that. But so far from claiming that as a special privilege, as charlatans do, my whole aim and purpose was to reveal to others the same principle, dormant but present in them, capable of being roused into astounding action. (As the physicists tell us of inconceivable forces which are locked up in the atom, and which would produce vast effects if they should be released, so I hold that there is a spiritual force in men that can change the face of humanity if once it be released.) But I do not invite you to accept my religion, I ask you to consider the practical directions for the conduct of life which follow from it, and if, having tested them, you find them valid in your experience then they will be of use to you.
In the beginning someone called me a "suppressed atheist." That was a mistake. I did not believe in his God, nor do I now. Someone may say at present that I am a suppressed theist. But let us not debate about a word. I will try to state distinctly what I believe in order that now, if not before, you may understand that I have been driving at, nay, what has been driving me all these years. I believe that Nature is but the outside surface of things, that it is the painted drop curtain behind which the real play is enacted, that there is divinity, that the essential life of the universe is perfect and therefore divine. The two words perfect and divine are synonymous. Dante in speaking of his master, Brunetto Latino, says: "He taught me to eternalize myself." That is the third word that goes with the two others - eternal, perfect, divine. The religion which I hold is intended to help me "eternalize" myself.
I draw a sharp distinction between divine being and divine life. All the theistic religions insist on divine existence, the existence of a divine being -- perfection, eternity, divinity, being contracted into a single individual being. That being is called God. If you believe in that being, you are religious; if not, you are an atheist, they say. I draw the distinction between existence and life. There have been endless attempts to prove the existence of the individual named God. All these attempts have failed -- the argument from design, the argument from evolution, etc.
The attempt to prove by logical argument the existence of an individual deity is foredoomed to failure. And if it succeeded it would not avail. The logical outcome of such a logical argument would be what Aristotle described, -- a self-sufficient, self-contemplating, self-enclosed perfection, between whom and ourselves there could be no relation. If I cannot taste divinity, if I cannot experience it, I have no use for it. Now it is otherwise if I anchor on the conception of divine life. If the perfect life quickens in the universe, then it may quicken in me who am a part of the universe, and of this quickening life I can have actual experience. The uttermost secret of it indeed I cannot penetrate. What essentially life is I cannot tell, but I can know its manifestations. There is an unmistakable difference between a dead stone and an organism. We have the idea of cause and effect which helps us to find our way in nature. We have also the idea of organism, not only the idea, but the experience of it. Now the idea of organism is a spiritual idea. This must be set down distinctly, that animals are only semblances of organisms. An organism is an assemblage of parts each of which is quick with some role it has to play in the whole, while at the same time (and this is vital to the idea) it prompts and quickens every other part to play its diverse role. Each is necessary to the whole, could not be spared, the whole is necessary to each. Life, imperfect as we know it, is found thus far only in connection with animal organisms -- yet the animal is only a most imperfect simulacrum of the organic ideal. For the parts of which it is composed are not irreplaceable, are not strictly necessary. They die, and this quasi-semblance of organism disappears. And therefore life as represented in the perishable animal is not true life, is not the divine life which we seek. For the divine is expressed in three synonyms -- divine and perfect and eternal. Hence my ideal of the divine life is that of an assemblage of parts, a society, a spiritual society, infinite, composed of infinite members infinitely diverse, each eternal, each necessary to the whole, the whole necessary to each. And it is this ideal of the perfect life in which I behold the symbol of the utter reality in things, of the powers and essences that work behind the screen.
The truth of this ideal I can discover in ethical experience, for ethical experience, as I interpret it, is nothing else than my endeavor to act toward my fellow beings as a member of an infinite spiritual society would act toward his fellow-spirits, seeking to quicken them, so as to express the eternal excellence that is potential in each, and thereby making actual the excellence that is in me.
The practical outcome of this daring metaphysics is usable by every one, whether he has a taste for metaphysics or a capacity to follow such speculations or note. I have put it into simple language: Seek the best in others, -- the best is the spiritual part in others -- and thereby you will bring to light the best in yourself.
In the theistic religions of the past, God stands for the individual soul exalted to the degree of the infinite. In this altered conception of divinity it is society exalted to the degree of the infinite, that stands for divinity. It is the social ideal of the divine that is here presented.
Are we then a religious society of this sort or of any other? I warn against the use of the pronoun "we," by an untrue insinuation committing others as well as oneself. That is a bad habit that clings to us from the heritage of the creeds. Some of us are religious and others are not. This society of ours is indeed a strange and new formation. It takes time even for those who belong to it to appreciate the novelty implied. Perhaps three classes of our membership may be discriminated. Some come only to hear, to listen. The gates are open. No one by joining the society is pledged to stay. There is an inflow and an outflow, thousands have come, other thousands have gone. There is an inner group, those who more or less accept the guidance to conduct, the rule of life which has been taught. Others, the innermost group, others unostentatiously, undistinguished from the rest, seeking by the contagion of their endeavor gradually to affect the lives of the others.
They do not affect to be the salt of the earth. They are not of the "holier than thou" kind. They are not puffed up with spiritual pride - the poorest kind of pride imaginable. No, they are characterized rather by a profounder humility, a more poignant sense of their own imperfection.
In a sublime passage, Isaiah exclaims: "Woe is me, for I have seen the vision of the Eternal, and I am a man of unclean lips, and dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips!" The vision punishes the seer, condemns him in his own eyes. The grander the vision of the ethical ideal, the more poignantly does he who conceives it realize the almost infinite distance between himself and that grandeur, that separates his performance from that completeness.
How simple comparatively the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, the Golden Rule of the New, how almost impossible the ethical effort demanded of us, namely, to see the spiritual nature in others despite the hideous appearances that mask it! How can we see it there unless it has become a convincing force in ourselves? And yet, he who sees the vision is akin to that which he sees. And the vision is not a floating ethereal dream, but power flows from it into the seer and necessity is laid upon him to strive to change his life and that of others in accordance with the sublime pattern which the vision holds out to him.
And so I say, turning to actual conditions, the mightiest task is before men individually and collectively -- to reconstruct the family, which is now at lowest ebb, to spiritualize marriage as a compact whereby to evoke reciprocally the excellence of women and men, to spiritualize industry by introducing the functional ethical principle as operative between its various factors, to create in time a corpus spirituale of mankind of which the various peoples of the earth shall be the members.
Little more than half a century of our movement is behind us. We are merely at the beginning. We have merely sketched the contour of the ideal and its structural principle. There must be a deeper psychology, richer experience to fill in the details. There must come a more adequate literature, speaking with a Biblical simplicity that goes through thought straight to heart and will. There must come new songs, texts that tell what we ourselves feel, not what others have felt, a new music perchance produced by some inspired composer who has caught the sense of the new religious conception, and who will create a new type of religious music -- not hallelujahs to the One, not Protestant chorales like those of Bach, however great these may be, not Catholic masses and requiems, but an incomparable harmony expressing the social conception of Divinity -- human groups answering and exciting in one another spiritual aspiration distinctive of each.
At the beginning of my address, I spoke of those who had trusted us in the belief that something great was to come of it all. And now, in closing, I turn to the future, to those to whom we commit our trust, to our unknown successors in the generations and generations. Across the gulf of years I send them my greeting, in the hope that long after my voice shall have been stilled, an echo of what has here been said on this anniversary day will reach them, urging them to carry on so as to bring nearer the day when the sublime vision which hitherto has been seen but faintly and intermittently shall shed its full radiance on a transfigured humanity.
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