Excerpt: Shall We Not Revere Our Ancestors?

An excerpt from Charles Kingley‘s Historical Lectures and Essays [1880]

Yes, it is very sad, the past history of mankind. But shall we despise those who went before us, and on whose accumulated labours we now stand?

Shall we not reverence our spiritual ancestors? Shall we not show our reverence by copying them, at least whenever, as in those old Persians, we see in them manliness and truthfulness, hatred of idolatries, and devotion to the God of light and life and good? And shall we not feel pity, instead of contempt, for their ruder forms of government, their ignorances, excesses, failures–so excusable in men who, with little or no previous teaching, were trying to solve for themselves for the first time the deepest social and political problems of humanity.

Yes, those old despotisms we trust are dead, and never to revive. But their corpses are the corpses, not of our enemies, but of our friends and predecessors, slain in the world-old fight of Ormuzd against Ahriman–light against darkness, order against disorder. Confusedly they fought, and sometimes ill: but their corpses piled
the breach and filled the trench for us, and over their corpses we step on to what should be to us an easy victory–what may be to us, yet, a shameful ruin.

For if we be, as we are wont to boast, the salt of the earth and the light of the world, what if the salt should lose its savour? What if the light which is in us should become darkness? For myself, when I look upon the responsibilities of the free nations of modern times, so far from boasting of that liberty in which I delight–and
to keep which I freely, too, could die–I rather say, in fear and trembling, God help us on whom He has laid so heavy a burden as to make us free; responsible, each individual of us, not only to ourselves, but to Him and all mankind. For if we fall we shall fall I know not whither, and I dare not think.

How those old despotisms, the mighty empires of old time, fell, we know, and we can easily explain. Corrupt, luxurious, effeminate, eaten out by universal selfishness and mutual fear, they had at last no organic coherence. The moral anarchy within showed through, at last burst through, the painted skin of prescriptive order which held them together. Some braver and abler, and usually more virtuous people, often some little, hardy, homely mountain tribe, saw that the fruit was ripe for gathering; and, caring naught for superior numbers–and saying with German Alaric when the Romans boasted of their numbers, “The thicker the hay the easier it is
mowed”–struck one brave blow at the huge inflated wind-bag–as Cyrus and his handful of Persians struck at the Medes; as Alexander and his handful of Greeks struck afterwards at the Persians–and behold, it collapsed upon the spot. And then the victors took the place of the conquered; and became in their turn an aristocracy, and then a despotism; and in their turn rotted down and perished. And so the vicious circle repeated itself, age after age, from Egypt and Assyria to Mexico and Peru.

And therefore, we, free peoples as we are, have need to watch, and sternly watch, ourselves. Equality of some kind or other is, as I said, our natural and seemingly inevitable goal. But which equality? For there are two–a true one and a false; a noble and a base; a healthful and a ruinous. There is the truly divine equality, and there is the brute equality of sheep and oxen, and of flies and worms. There is the equality which is founded on mutual envy. The equality which respects others, and the equality which asserts itself. The equality which longs to raise all alike, and the equality which desires to pull down all alike. The equality which says: Thou art as good as I, and it may be better too, in the sight of God. And the equality which says: I am as good as thou, and will therefore see if I cannot master thee.

Side by side, in the heart of every free man, and every free people, are the two instincts struggling for the mastery, called by the same name, but bearing the same relation to each other as Marsyas to Apollo, the Satyr to the God. Marsyas and Apollo, the base and the noble, are, as in the old Greek legend, contending for the prize. And the prize is no less an one than all free people of this planet.

In proportion as that nobler idea conquers, and men unite in the equality of mutual respect and mutual service, they move one step further towards realising on earth that Kingdom of God of which it is written—‘The despots of the nations exercise dominion over them, and they that exercise authority over them are called benefactors. But he that will be great among you let him be the servant of all.’

And in proportion as that base idea conquers, and selfishness, not self-sacrifice, is the ruling spirit of a State, men move on, one step forward towards realising that kingdom of the devil upon earth, ‘Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.’ Only, alas! in that evil equality of envy and hate, there is no hindmost, and the devil takes them all alike.

And so is a period of discontent, revolution, internecine anarchy, followed by a tyranny endured, as in old Rome, by men once free, because tyranny will at least do for them, what they were too lazy and greedy and envious to do for themselves.

And all because they have forgot
What ’tis to be a man—to curb and spurn
The tyrant in us: the ignobler self
Which boasts, not loathes, its likeness to the brute;
And owns no good save ease, no ill save pain,
No purpose, save its share in that wild war
In which, through countless ages, living things
Compete in internecine greed. Ah, loving God,
Are we as creeping things, which have no lord?
That we are brutes, great God, we know too well;
Apes daintier-featured; silly birds, who flaunt
Their plumes, unheeding of the fowler’s step;
Spiders, who catch with paper, not with webs;
Tigers, who slay with cannon and sharp steel,
Instead of teeth and claws:—all these we are.
Are we no more than these, save in degree?
Mere fools of nature, puppets of strong lusts,
Taking the sword, to perish by the sword
Upon the universal battle-field,
Even as the things upon the moor outside?

The heath eats up green grass and delicate herbs;
The pines eat up the heath; the grub the pine;
The finch the grub; the hawk the silly finch;
And man, the mightiest of all beasts of prey,
Eats what he lists. The strong eat up the weak;
The many eat the few; great nations, small;
And he who cometh in the name of all
Shall, greediest, triumph by the greed of all,
And, armed by his own victims, eat up all.
While ever out of the eternal heavens
Looks patient down the great magnanimous God,
Who, Master of all worlds, did sacrifice
All to Himself? Nay: but Himself to all;
Who taught mankind, on that first Christmas Day,
What ’tis to be a man—to give, not take;
To serve, not rule; to nourish, not devour;
To lift, not crush; if need, to die, not live.

‘He that cometh in the name of all’—the popular military despot—the ‘saviour of his country’—he is our internecine enemy on both sides of the Atlantic, whenever he arises—the inaugurator of that Imperialism, that Cæsarism into which Rome sank, when not her liberties merely, but her virtues, were decaying out of her—the sink into which all wicked States, whether republics or monarchies, are sure to fall, simply because men must eat and drink for to-morrow they die. The Military and Bureaucratic Despotism which keeps the many quiet, as in old Rome, by panem et Circenses—bread and games—or if need be, Pilgrimages; that the few may make money, eat, drink, and be merry, as long as it can last. That, let it ape as it may—as did the Cæsars of old Rome at first—as another Emperor did even in our own days—the forms of dead freedom, really upholds an artificial luxury by brute force; and consecrates the basest of all aristocracies, the aristocracy of the money bag, by the divine sanction of the bayonet.

That at all risks, even at the price of precious blood, the free peoples of the earth must ward off from them; for, makeshift and stop-gap as it is, it does not even succeed in what it tries to do. It does not last. Have we not seen that it does not, cannot last? How can it last. This falsehood, like all falsehoods, must collapse at one touch of Ithuriel’s spear of truth and fact. And—

‘Then saw I the end of these men. Namely, how Thou dost set them in slippery places, and casteth them down.

‘Suddenly do they perish, and come to a fearful end. Yea, like as a dream when one awaketh, so shalt Thou make their image to vanish out of the city.’

Have we not seen that too, though, thank God, neither in England nor in the United States?

And then? What then? None knows, and none can know.

The future of France and Spain, the future of the Tropical Republics of Spanish America, is utterly blank and dark; not to be prophesied, I hold, by mortal man, simply because we have no like cases in the history of the past whereby to judge the tendencies of the present. Will they revive? Under the genial influences of free institutions will the good seed which is in them take root downwards, and bear fruit upwards? and make them all what that fair France has been, in spite of all her faults, so often in past years—a joy and an inspiration to all the nations round? Shall it be thus? God grant it may; but He, and He alone, can tell. We only stand by, watching, if we be wise, with pity and with fear, the working out of a tremendous new social problem, which must affect the future of the whole civilised world.

For if the agonising old nations fail to regenerate themselves, what can befall? What, when even Imperialism has been tried and failed, as fail it must? What but that lower depth within the lowest deep?

That last dread mood
Of sated lust, and dull decrepitude.
No law, no art, no faith, no hope, no God.
When round the freezing founts of life in peevish ring,
Crouched on the bare-worn sod,
Babbling about the unreturning spring,
And whining for dead creeds, which cannot save,
The toothless nations shiver to their grave.