Delivered by Jack, I. Allen
"Oration Delivered Before the Associated Alumni of the University of New Brunswick, By I. Allen Jack, Esq., B.C.L., (VIND.) At the Encaenia, 1882" King’s College Record 5, 42 (October, 1882): 349-353. (UA Case 67a, Box 1)
Ana Potamôn IerônThe words are those of a Greek poet centuries before the birth of Christ: they are placed in the mouth of that somewhat wise and somewhat querulous old man who, strange as the appelation seems in these days of great gatherings of singers, formed the chorus, in the ancient plays: and the chorus is supposed to echo public sentiment in a far away mythical age.
Kai Dika Kai Panta Palin Strephetai.*
*(The waters of the sacred streams flow upwards: justice and everything else are reversed.)
"The waters of the sacred streams flow upwards: justice and everything are reversed." It is a wail from the ancient dead, a message delivered by a ghost, and it tells as that in the earliest days man was far from being pleased with his lot. And almost contemporaneously with the poet, a chosen king of a chosen people, gifted with Heaven-sent knowledge, surrounded by splendor, and possessed of boundless wealth, proclaims that he has tried every kind of work and every kind of pleasure, and that he has found them all vanity and vexation of spirit.
The pessimists seemed to prevail among the thinkers in the classic times and places. There were, in truth, plenty of laughing girls and boys, and picturesque processions, and altars, priests and victims garlanded with flowers and redolent with odors; there was sunshine, there was beauty and there was song. But amidst all these was the philosopher who pondered, and from the bottom of his heart protested, with King Solomon, that they were all profitless and altogether vanity. There was barely sufficient respect for the gods to prevent them from being held wholly responsible for the evils under which creation groaned, and man was generally considered his own worst enemy. But no matter upon whom the responsibility rested, the evil existed and it was very hard to bear.
There is a marked difference between the position, the work and the influence of the philosopher in ancient and in modern times. The former lived within himself and largely by himself, and, if he was not exactly selfish and an egotist, he at least separated himself from his fellows and ignored their ways and thoughts, and aspirations. Doubtless it was a futile effort to render his bodily existence entirely subservient to his spiritual wants, and to make his spiritual essence all-pervading, which induced him to live in retirement, and to despise nearly everything which gave satisfaction to those around him. But we cannot wonder that the multitude, unwilling to admit what they must have suspected to be true, and unable to understand or even to guess at his inner motive, regarded the grave, thoughtful man as like an ill-omened bird whose sole functions were to drive away joy and establish sadness. There had been no revelation to the Classic nations; the "man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" had not been proclaimed among them, and no one knew that the path to happiness led through the valley of tears. In the modern sociologist, noticeable rather for Iris soberness of demeanour than for his poverty of attire; living not perhaps in luxury but at least in comfort; if not seeking at least not shunning companionship; respected and not feared or hated by the world, it is difficult to recognize a descendant, in the intellectual life of such men as I have pictured. The gray-headed sage, breaking the ice with his bare feet, living in a tub, or, may I say, searching with his lantern, is no more. It is true that the philosophers or some of them did more than merely complain. Now it is a Socrates who, when dying, teaches the duty of man to his neighbors. Again it is a Cicero who directs suum cuique tribuito—render every man his due. And, as we pass down the ages, we find amongst those who were not all strictly in the ranks of the philosophers an occasional prototype of some modern worker or thinker. "The soul," says Plutarch, "has a principle of kindness in itself, and is born to love as well as to perceive, think or remember," and thereby proclaims himself a precursor of the Fowell Buxtons and Peabodys of the later times.
And again we find the eminently practical man who spends but little time in developing or nourishing the emotions, or utilizing the higher mental faculties for securing happiness. "I cannot play upon any stringed instrument," says Themistocles, "but I can tell you how of a little village to make a great city." We are forced to respect and even admire the ascetics and recluses, who both in Pagan and in Christian times, sought in solitude and amid the deep shadows of doubts and fear to attain personal perfection. But no matter how strongly we may think of a future life, and a possible happiness elsewhere than on earth; no matter how transitory we may regard existence in our present flesh, we cannot but turn with sympathy towards those who seek to lessen human suffering, and to improve unhappy social conditions.
Hamlet bears to Shakespear's play the same relation that the chorus does to the Medea, so far as he assumes to express the thoughts existing in another age than that of the author. Hamlet, like the chorus, tells us that "The times are out of joint," but he proceeds, "[Alas]; cursed spite, that ever I was born to set them right." He is not merely a complainer but an actor, and, though he protests against the task imposed, he yet undertakes it.
But it must not be supposed that he who discovers and proclaims a defect, an injustice or a wrong, does no good merely because he takes no measures to remove the one or the other. If this were the case, the theorist would deserve no attention and would probably attract none. But it is not; and, as a matter of fact, the theorist is not unusually, although not always, the prime mover in social reforms. There is indeed a marked similarity in the order and character of nature's work in the material and the psycological world.
In the early dawn the brightest and the purest tints are in the eastern sky and reflected upon the sea, where the ships are lying motionless with hanging sails; the air is cool, the light subdued, and the dewdrops are gleaming in the grass. An hour afterwards and the richness of color is gone from sky and sea; but the ships, their sails bellying before the wind begotten by the sun, are dancing over the waves—the air is warm, the light is intense, and the shining drops of dew have been absorbed by the thirsty plants. One day, in passing through the meadow, you see a flower; when next you follow the same path the flower is gone; but when you pass again, a berry is in its place. So it is with human social progress. First the mind revolts at what is wrong, and then it seeks to rectify the wrong. First come the emotion of pity and the tear of sympathy, then the deed of charity. First the beauty of thought, then the utility of action; and indeed the analogy, at least in the case of one example cited, may be traced more closely. When the petals fall from the receptacle of the flowering plant, it seems withered and quite dead, but the life is really there. So when a beautiful sentiment is expressed, you may think that this is all; but it is not so, for years and even ages afterwards the action will follow, as the berry will appear when the flower has been long gone. There is no more certain law in social progress than that thought, and not improbably intense thought, must precede the attainment of material advantages.
It is Erasmus who says: "When I get some money, I will buy me some Greek books and afterwards some clothes." Here we find the true spirit or instinct of the student. First books, then clothes; first the flower, then the fruit; first knowledge, then bodily comfort; and indeed the true student, in his thirst for books and knowledge, not infrequently becomes oblivious of clothes and comfort. The well-conditioned lobster is in Pallisey's hands; he and his wife are starving; but for all that the choice crustacean is used as a model and not for dinner.
It is, perhaps, unfortunate that the infatuation of study too commonly induces those who possess great natural intellectual powers and valuable mental attainments, to treat the condition of their more vulgar-minded fellows as better fitted for theory than action. The philosopher discusses results of unequal distribution of wealth, of laws relating to the acquisition and tenure of property, of class distinctions, and the maintenance of so-called vested rights. But it is the active philanthropist or politician, rarely at the same time a philosopher, who modifies or destroys these results. The men who write books upon political economy and the social sciences are seldom to be found in the ranks of practical philanthropists or legislators. It is not very difficult to perceive the reason for this seeming anomaly. In the first place intense and unremitting study tends to lend the mind to consider the abstract in preference to the concrete, and to render the thinker only partially or at least not sympathetically conscious of the actual and perceptible evil in contemplation of the ideal good. To him evil is but a picture, and good a dream. Then again intellectual pursuits almost invariably develop a sensitiveness and a tendency to shrink from contact with rough human nature, and from competition with eager aspirants for place, and thereby interpose a not unformidable barrier between the student and the fulfilment of his political and social aspirations. But lastly and chiefly, in political systems, even in this enlightened age, intellect and education are not allowed the same political privileges as other kinds of property. Here and elsewhere to-day Erasmus, with his lofty aspirations and his Greek books, but without money to buy clothes, would not have a vote for a city councillor. On the other hand, the man at the corner, with his buck and saw, unable to tell one letter from another, and asking for nothing beyond his "panem et circenses," his bread and negro minstrels, but possessing a little bit of land, valued at a trifling sum, may assist in making the first minister of the Crown. That this is an evil that demands a remedy is evident, and that eventually society will rectify the evil I fully believe. Meanwhile, while intellect and knowledge are claiming a place in which they may have the greatest influence in directing and controlling social progress, are proper measures being taken to supply men for the place? Are students generally engaged in the study of subjects which relate to the wants of society? And lastly is our educational system such as to qualify students to become legislators and leaders in society? Let me prepare the way for answering these questions. If we turn again to the material world, we find that myriads of individual objects, although working separately, and each with nearly equal force and result as its fellows of the same class, are still aiding in the accomplishment of common objects. The coal field was once a rank plantation of individual plants. The stream which turns the mill wheel or bears the raft to the distant market consists of countless globules of identical form and volume. The meadow is bright with innumerable flowers, but each flower gives its share of fragrance to the breeze, which, freighted with sweetness, breathes along the lanes and into many cottage windows. In the body politic, as well as in the body ecclesiastic, there must be catholicity in thought, in energy, in action. The worker, who works for himself alone; the student, who studies solely for his own gratification or advantage; the thinker, who feels sympathy only for his own troubles, are recreant in their duty to mankind.
If these, principles are sound, as I believe them to be, there is reason to admit that in but few of our educational institutions are we pursuing a system which is calculated to produce just such men at society requires. It was not until years after leaving college that the real problems of social life were presented to my own mind; and, looking back over the subjects comprehended in the collegiate curricula, I could not refer to one, the study of which would afford me any direct aid in elucidating those problems, not because the subjects were necessarily unconnected with the problems, but because they were never studied with reference to the problems. I believe that here political economy at least is made a prominent subject of study, and to this extent the student of to-day possesses a great advantage over my compeers in this institution. I do not, however, wish my remarks to be restricted in their application; and, without making a special reference to the curriculum of the University, I desire to refer to what seems to me to be a requirement of all higher education. I contend that at least in all the superior educational institutions it is essential that every student should be taught, first, his duties to society, and secondly, the principles to be recognized and the methods to be pursued in discharging those duties. In reality this would be a return to the Athenian educational system, but the modern teacher would have the advantage over the Greek, in possessing a superior knowledge of facts and of methods of scientific treatment than the latter. The young man who has passed through the schools or his course in arts and is about to enter the real business of life, has very many admirable aspirations. But, as a rule, these have reference to self, and, in casting his horoscope, he sees only personal honors, riches and enjoyments. Yet, if you urge him to consider whether it were better to be a Midas, living amidst amassed treasures, or a Quintus Curtius, dead and mangled beneath the cliff, no matter what dreams he may have had of the future, he cannot but admit that the patriotic knight, and not the-wealthy monarch, is the true hero and example. I would impress upon every student, throughout his entire scholastic course, that his natural gifts and all his intellectual gains are held by him in trust, not for himself or his own immediate friends, but for humanity. I would take him to a point of view whence he could see nations, communities and individuals striving to wrest from each what the other possesses; here the powerful taking the lost penny from the weak; there the poor and oppressed dying for want of bread. I would let him see all the evil; not for the sake of casting a shadow across his young life, but to enable him to remove the shadow from the lives of others, and so illuminate his own that it will be crossed by no persistent shadow. I would have him learn that in proportion as he fights against injustice and alleviates misery will he secure happiness for others, and incidentally and without directly seeking for it, himself.
There are two distinct ideas which are recognized in systematic education, sometimes one and sometimes the other prevailing. Considered apart from each other, and with reference to the practical application of these ideas, we may say that knowledge which is directly useful, and frequently applicable, is imparted to the student, or he is trained in methods of investigation and thought which will enable him hereafter to acquire and utilize subsequently acquired knowledge. Now regarding the social sciences from a strictly educational point of view, it seems to me that their study must be considered especially useful. History from the most remote periods; languages, which always contain important historical, political and social data; the natural and the abstract sciences are all interwoven with, and perhaps indispensable to, the social sciences, while their study demands the strictest application of inductive and deductive powers and methods. Requiring, as they certainly do, the accumulation of almost every kind of knowledge, and the application of the highest mental faculties, and having a direct reference to the most important interests of society at large, there seems to be every reason to assign to them a very prominent position in the curriculum of every college, if not of every upper school. It does not take long for a man to learn that he must depend upon the help of his fellows, and upon the use of systematic methods, to effect social reforms and changes. You will not make mankind more just by knocking down every individual who, to your knowledge, has committed wrong. You cannot remove poverty by emptying your pockets to every beggar. You, who possess nothing, cannot equalize the ownership of property by stealing half his wealth from your neighbor.
It may indeed be admitted that not only are the defects in society very varied and very perplexing, but so also are the methods suggested for their removal. Poverty is a great curse, but so also is the indiscriminate relief of poverty. Liberty is a right which we all claim, but even liberty may degenerate into unrestricted license, and one man be permitted to do harm to many. The rights of property should be respected, but grossly unequal distribution of property causes much misery. The will of the majority is law, but is it right that the minority should suffer and not be heard? Regarded in all its aspects, our own age seems to possess many peculiar attractions, and such that I cannot conceive how any man, now living, who sympathises only slightly with the spirit of the age, could wish to have lived at any anterior period. The rapid strides which have been made in physical science, make daring thinkers almost feel that surely we are but a few paces from the mystic centre whence emanate the laws not only of motionless but of moving matter. Critical art seems nearly to have reached the perfection of understanding and expression, and creative art, enriched with accumulated treasures of mighty dead and not insignificant living artists, is making what before was dull and merely useful and prosaic, beautiful and soul ennobling. Gross ignorance is becoming more and more uncommon, and the great distances which intellectually separated the noble from the hind, the professor from the artizan, are gradually disappearing. But amidst all these hopeful symptoms, and despite all the efforts of social leaders to improve the condition of mankind, are felt and heard the pulsations of discontented, unhappy peoples, more conscious than in the sluggish, placid days gone by of their wants, and awakening to a consciousness of their powers. The fabled monster was happy in his woodland haunts, among the flowers and the birds; devouring the wild roots; sucking the juices of fruits; listening to the songsters among the branches; and sleeping deep in the soft moss beneath the stars. Alas! one day he saw his hideous image reflected in the lake, and then he prayed for death. But it is not death for which the masses pray in this nineteenth century. No, they say, we have a little liberty, and a little knowledge, and we must have more of these, and not death but life and happiness, or at least its nearest similitude. A little knowledge is, in truth, a dangerous thing. The unaided Biblical student may learn to create and believe most unwholesome heresies. The amateur physician may poison his blood, stupify his brain, or counteract the functions of his stomach. The school-master, who goes into court after reading Blackstone and no other legal text book, may lose a case which should have been won. But if a modicum of knowledge may do harm, a plentitude of knowledge will effect a cure or at least a partial cure.
Happy in the possession of peaceful homes and moderate means, and never having experienced the evils of bad systems of government or unequal laws, we shrink from and we hate or despise social and political agitators. Give thorn but an opprobrious name, and they are condemned and socially ostracised. Fenians, Socialists, Nihilists, how we shudder when we hear of them. But, in reality, neither the Fenians, the Socialists, nor the Nihilists, much as we condemn their actions, are wholly without principles, grievances or proper purposes. Usually, if we examine the history of any movement undertaken by any one of these or kindred organizations, we will find that there are real causes of complaint; that these, after having been long endured by many, are found to be unendurable by a few earnest and active men, who fully believe that the methods which they select for removing the wrongs are either strictly proper or at least wholly justifiable. It is not the theory, or the human protest against the inhuman wrong that deserves to be condemned, but the method, the misdirected effort to rectify the wrong. It is ignorance which is the real cause of the intermediate and final bad results of revolutions and popular uprisings. If men but knew the history of similar revolutions or uprisings, if they but comprehended the inaccuracies of the arguments which have aroused the passions and prompted action, the insufficiency of the remedies proposed, and the miseries resulting from the adoption of the remedies, they would pause before they acted. It is from our educational centres that such knowledge and power of comprehension should come; and no educational system can be considered perfect which does not aid in creating and nourishing this knowledge and this power. We are told by Herodotus of a kind of dragon which, in the Lybian deserts, finds life by the destruction of its mother, through whose body it gnaws and tears its way into the world. Let us look to it that society, in the means which it affords to all its members for acquiring knowledge, does not beget a monster which will annihilate its own progenitor.
The theory upon which our system of common colleges and schools is based, is that every citizen should learn to exercise the rights of citizenship. In the extension of the franchise a new and far from insignificant element has been introduced into the governing power of society, which, for its own preservation, is forced to provide that this element shall not be one of disturbance. A sense of possible danger to social order, of responsibility to parents, to pupils and to the public, and of gratitude for state, municipal or private aid, must force the managers and teachers of our educational institutions to make provision for very obvious requirements. Ignoring as we do, at least in part, the religious element in education; and conscious that we have to deal with large sections of people who are uninfluenced by Christian principles, and with many theories which can be considered without reference to distinctive Christian dogmas, it is incumbent upon all of us to master at least elemental truths, and the art of separating fallacies from truths, in political and social sciences, so that we may not be deceived by the contentions of ignorant or unprincipled social agitators. Not long since I had the pleasure of listening to a lecture upon a prominent and important political topic by one of our leading educationalists. One who listened to the lecture subsequently remarked in my hearing that it was a pity that such an one as the lecturer should not represent this Province in Parliament; and, although not strictly agreeing with the lecturer in his conclusions, I could not help saying, mentally, Amen. There is too much of a severance of men who call themselves practical politicians from those learned and thoughtful persons, whom the former somewhat contemptuously term doctrinaire, regardless of what I claim is an undeniable fact that these same doctrinaire have suggested nearly all the great political reforms which have been accomplished in recent years. It clearly is not safe to despise the doctrinaire who, from their quiet studies, are sending forth to the world volumes containing ideas which are sometimes of the most startling and revolutionary nature, and which are frequently sustained by eloquent and forcible reasoning. Recently I read with great interest a work, which has had a wide circulation, (Progress and Poverty), in which the writer supports with peculiar force of argument and beauty of language, the theory which Herbert Spencer and others have propounded, that there should be no private property in land. As the author holds that to our existing systems of land tenure most of the misery which exists in the world is attributable, it must follow that many of his readers, convinced of what may seem to them the incontrovertibility of his position, may be persuaded that action should follow conviction. And action, with reference to such a subject, means nothing less than revolution. Is the author right or wrong? Surety, in the consideration of topics of this nature our educated classes would be wasting neither power of brain nor time. Surely a man cannot claim to be possessed of a liberal education, either if he is ignorant that this and kindred propositions are made by modern philosophers, or if he is unable to expose their fallacies, if they really are untenable. The strife of active political parties frequently centres upon some question upon which there should be no doubt. Often a political leader swings himself into place on the strength of some egregious political heresy in which the masses do not recognize a heresy. And meanwhile the educated classes stand aloof, or, untrained in the very rudiments of political science, only learn what is the right and what is the wrong side of the question, when the false principle has been incorporated into an accomplished fact.
Amidst the contests, the trials, the disappointments of a busy life, old students look back with pleasant memory to a far off college life. Here on this hilltop, whence may be seen the distant gleaming river, whence may be heard the sound of bells; or down among the trees, shut off by masses of summer leaves from the sights and sounds of the outer world; breathing the soft sweet air; surely life is worth the living. Unincumbered by household cares, inexperienced in the janglings and contentions of the forum and the market, may not and should not the possessor of so much that is calculated to create and foster contentment, sometimes think, and think deeply, of the wants and aspirations of those of whom he is not yet, but soon will be, one; of those who are marching from childhood to the grave; some shouting victory at the head of the battalions; others straggling weary in the rear, or lying bruised and wounded in the ditches.
Addresses may be reproduced for research purposes only. Publication in whole or in part requires written permission from the author.