And what an aim does ethics give to man ! With what solemnity does it invest our life ! We are here to lift ourselves to the measure of perfect goodness; society exists to lift itself to perfect justice. Life is not for living merely, but for living so that somewhat divine may be incorporated into it. How low men's thoughts ordinarily are ! Religion itself sometimes takes sides with the world as it is, and distrusts reform. How many in his Church to-day would hear Jesus, should he come again enraptured with his thought of a coming kingdom of God ? Was ever socialist so wild and visionary as he ? Car-lyle used to say there was properly no religion in England. A stern saying, but when we remember how stern a thing religion is (or it is nothing); when we remember the fact of absolute obligation, which is its essence, and ask ourselves how many men and women in our own country live invisibly bound to truth and honor and justice, — we cannot deny all credence to the saying, and may ask ourselves, Are we in America much better off? Our own Emerson spoke nearly fifty years ago of " the universal decay, and now almost death, of faith in society." The Church, he declared, " had lost its grasp on the affection of the good and the fear of the bad."1 It is as if Christianity had at last got itself well lodged in this world, and had forgotten its dreams of another. Yet its dream of another, its vision of a perfect society that should replace the present order based so largely on selfishness and cruelty and wrong, was at the beginning its very inspiration and life. Hence its high demands, its seemingly impracticable precepts ; hence its enthusiasm, that swept through an old decaying society like fire, destroying and recre ating. There is little of this enthusiasm now. You cannot have enthusiasm and commonplace aims. Enthusiasm is born of an idea, and idealism is at a low ebb among the churches. There is probably more idealism outside the Church than within it; it is born in mangers again, and makes its home in despised social reformers, among men who cannot live and see the world go on as it is. The trouble, on the other hand, with our social reform is that it does not start from within, that it is partial, that its aims are not severe and grand enough; and so its enthusiasm is finite, and does not reach the depths of man. Not resentment and not wrath, but the moral sentiment must give anew the aim to human life. Once more must the call go forth for a perfect life ; once more must it be brought home to man that not food nor raiment nor shelter, not comfort nor ease, not science nor art, are the end of existence, but the " kingdom of God;" and that this is not only the end but the beginning, since without justice and human sympathy science and art may minister to vice as well as virtue, and not even comfort or daily bread are necessarily within the reach of all. Louise Michel, predicting the outcome of the social revolution, says that man, having at last attained his plenitude, being no longer hungry nor cold, nor afflicted by any of the miseries of the present time, will be good.1 I see not one ray of hope for humanity in such a philosophy. The tendency of the evolutionary doctrine is, to a certain extent, to hold justice impracticable, save in an ideal state of society. But justice is commanded, and is the only thing that is practicable now or in any state of society. Goodness is the sovereign law of life, first as well as last; it is sovereign over life, as even Patagonian Indians may feel, — three of whom, Darwin tells us, once allowed themselves to be shot, one after the other, rather than betray their companions in war.1 I look for the social reformer who shall appeal to the sublime in man; who shall be able to hold a savage, angry mob in check, and make them more willing to die than to do wrong; and who shall pierce with the power of his convictions through the lying and sophistical selfishness of the prosperous, and make them own with trembling the law they now defy, and by his persuasiveness entreat them and woo them, so that with tears and penitent gladness they will do tasks of love and tenderest good-will. Such social reform will be religion once more on the face of the earth; such a reformer will be another Christ, come with his solemn purity, his high faith, his unconquerable love, to shame and to heal the world.
1 Divinity School Address, 1838.
1 Chicago Times, Feb. 14,1885.
What power, what omnipotence, will come in that day to our poor old human nature, — poor now only because it will not surrender itself to the moral sentiment, because it will not unlock its heart and receive of the infinite riches of justice and love that lie forever waiting and even knocking at the door! The moral sentiment is deliverance, — it is the open door to infinite power. When, in answer to the inner imperative, man obeys, he is rejuvenated, and feels the freshness of an eternal day in his heart and through all the arteries of his being. There is no age to the spirit that lives in high sentiments. " Always young for liberty," exclaimed Dr. Channing. The faith born of ethics is that man can do the right. The imperative itself brings the power to meet it. To say that duty commands us but that we cannot obey, is to suppose a lie in the nature of things. There is no duty if I cannot perform it. And as duty exists and charms and binds me, I know I can do it. The will is not bound. Men say we are born selfish, avaricious, lustful, and cannot be otherwise. You can be ; and the first thing is to feel in your heart of hearts that you ought to be, — and the iron weight of that obligation felt in your inmost soul will transform you and give you its iron strength. Yet how the religion of the day travesties our nature ! Not only does Orthodoxy teach the impotency of man, but Liberal Christianity teaches the necessity of prayer, which comes to the same thing, — saying that we poor creatures are weak and must have help. But Emerson answers, " Such as you are, the gods themselves could not help you." Again, " The weight of the universe is pressed down on the shoulders of each moral agent to hold him to his task. The only path of escape known in all the worlds of God is performance." 1 There is a breath as of mountain air in such words, — invigoration and re-invigoration for the moral life of man, and the secret of regeneration for religion, which, as Emerson says, now effeminates and demoralizes. It is a sublime faith that whatever the outward seeming, man is made for the good; that, starting imperfect, he is called to be perfect; that society and all the races of men have the way open to an infinite goal, which they will fail to reach only if they do not will to. What is wanting in us, what is wanting in society, is not the power, but the will, to do and dare and suffer. The wide earth might be a scene of justice to-morrow, and every city of our land transformed into a City of the Light, if men and women would wake with to-morrow's sun to will the good which now lies like a half-formed vision in their minds.
1 " Worship," in Conduct of Life.
1 Descent of Man, p. 111, n.