News

Annual Report Finds Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Remains Largely White, Male

News

Harvard Square Celebrates Oktoberfest

News

Harvard Corporation Members Donated Big to Democrats in 2020 Elections

News

City Council Candidates Propose Strategies for Supporting Low-Income Residents at Virtual Forum

News

FAS Dean Gay Hopes to Update Affiliates on Ethnic Studies Search by Semester’s End

PHI BETA KAPPA ORATION.

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

THE orator of the Phi Beta Kappa Society last June was Professor Charles C. Everett. The subject was "The Gain of History"; or, as the author states more fully, "Do the changes of History imply corresponding Gains?" By History is meant the life of mankind since the Aryan dispersion. Are we better off than our forefathers of four thousand years ago? Before answering this question, Professor Everett seeks to remove certain prejudices. One of these is the natural belief that all is for the best, from which proceeds, especially in youth, an enthusiastic trust in progress; but, even retaining a faith in optimism, might we not reasonably suppose that, by a system of compensations, the world is always at its best? Is it not by blindly applying a principle of final causes that we look on all other centuries only as the preparation for our own? That this is so the author affirms, and maintains, with Spinoza, that "nothing exists merely for something else." "Each moment has its own worth and beauty," and each stage in our history was an end in itself. Another way in which we are shown to err is by forming our idea of history from that of the last few centuries, and reckoning that as progress which is only painful return to a former position.

But coming more directly to the subject, Professor Everett treats successively of the two elements of our civilization, - life and thought. In speaking of life, he compares the "tendency of our society towards individualization," "based upon what may be called the arithmetical view of life, that regards society as made up of units, any one of which is equal to any other," with the patriarchal state that existed among our distant Aryan forefathers. In the latter, each individual found a place allotted him which he was expected to fill with fidelity and loyalty, and in which, "while true to his position, each had his function and his support." In the society of our day much greater energy is called forth in the individual; his position is more manly, more independent, but at the same time more unprotected. Labor and capital, united in a patriarchal system, are regarded as opposed to each other in our own, and the only attempt at an organization is that of the trades-unions, which "involve a complete levelling process, and in which the arithmetical view of society reaches its extreme results." Our author concludes, then, that "at best liberty is not progress. It is a condition of progress. Its worth depends upon its use." And, though wealth be the result of our system, yet "wealth is not an end in itself; like liberty, it is a means to an end."

From the consideration of life we pass to that of thought. Of the unsatisfactoriness of our knowledge even now, Goethe and Herbert Spencer testify, exclaiming with Faust:-

"unb fehe, dob mir nidjta wiffen fonnen!"

Of Spencer Professor Everett says:-

"He begins his work by pointing us down into the abyss of the unknowable. Alpine travellers tell us that sometimes a terrible abyss is bridged over by a reach of hard drifted snow, so solid that one can walk over it, for the most part, in security; so thin that a stroke of the alpenstock will pierce it, leaving an opening through which may be discerned the blue vacancy beneath. Herbert Spencer drives his staff through the thin stratum of drifted words, of consolidated forms of thought, of congealed tradition which we have felt to be so solid beneath our feet, and bids us look and see the fathomless depths of the unknowable above which we stand."

Without asking whether the results that Spencer draws from this impossibility of certain knowledge are true, the searching question is put, Is it a thing to exult over?

On the other side, Buchner and the materialists seem not to have progressed beyond the Chinese, of three thousand years before Christ, who recognized in the universe two elements, one active, one inert, - force and matter; but perhaps came nearer the truth than our German contemporaries in recognizing these elements as divine intelligences rather than dead and aimless. The business of science is, indeed, analysis. It returns us elements for the wholes we give it. The danger is lest we lose the former, so much the more important. "The sense of the glory of the heavens is worth more than the physicist can tell us about them." But we are not to look for gain in religion more than in science. It might have been hoped that our author would grant us a faith somewhat purer and stronger than that of the worshippers of Ahura-Mazda, but he tells us, "a godless world implies a worldless God." Yet Professor Everett believes "in the great law of progress in the world of life," and this because the very elements of life we have been examining contain the conditions for advance. We have not recognized this before, because we have been comparing a fragment of the present with the whole of the past.

"With us the elements of thought as well as of life have become differentiated. But each has thus become developed into a fulness of detail that was before impossible; and therefore, just so far as they can be recombined into a unity similar to the old, do we have a fulness and a grandeur of conception far surpassing that."

The spirit seeks to find itself in the world of matter, it cares for facts only as they lead to truth with which it is familiar. But among the modern ways of studying and regarding the world, the soul feels itself a stranger. Some, to remedy this, make thought a property of matte; others, matter but a mode of force or will; both parties fail in their end, because the opposites to be harmonized are not mind and matter, but the "wholes amid which alone the spirit feels at home, and the atoms or points with which science has to do." It is only by an honest synthesis in our minds of the results of the analysis of science that we can reach the glory of the ideal.

"While matter divides and subdivides itself till it is finally lost in the endlessness of the process, the ideal is one and absorbs the diversity of the material into itself."

And here the author justifies a true use of the word "teleology," opposing an utter denial of final causes, as he has already censured those who regard everything merely as an end. Both views are true when taken together; the relation of one part of the universe to another is that of the parts of a great painting which are true in themselves, but lack something unless united. Upon this view rests the belief in the "ideal element which is the life of all things," and which, "taking up into itself all the results of our analysis, assumes a grandeur and a glory that had never been possible before." Here, then, is the gain of History, that in this age, "by the combination and utilization of our results, a fulness of life is possible that was never possible before." Agassiz and Sumner stand as examples of men who have recognized the ideal element even in the multitude of details put into their hands, and whose lives have thus become more large and full than was possible in any other age. Agassiz, the child of both continents, who found the objects of his study wherever life exists, still saw the world guided and sustained by a loving God; Sumner, familiar by his learning with all past civilizations, saw in them a law of freedom for all men, which he tried to apply in his own century. Both stand as "symbols of the true use, - the use which will one day be made of the materials which this age is accumulating," when "every detail of science shall add to the glory of the ideal, and the spiritual shall be seen to be first and all-pervading as well as last."

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags