What means this summons, oh friends! to the groves of Academe? I heard,
in the distance, the measured tread of Philosophy. I mused: "How grave
and deliberate is she! How she matches thought with thought! How
patiently she questions inference and conclusion! No irrelevance, no
empty ballooning, is allowed in that Concord school. Nothing frivolous
need apply there for admission." And lo! in the midst of this severe
entertainment an interlude is called for in the great theatre. The stage
manager says, "Ring up Puck. Wanted, an Ariel." And no Shakespeare being
at hand, I, of the sex much reproved for never having produced one, am
invited to fly hither as well as my age and infirmities will allow, and
to represent to you that airy presence whose folly, seen from the
clouds, is wisdom; that presence which, changing with the changes of the
year and of the day, may yet sing, equally with the steadfast stars and
"The hand that made me is divine."
Modern society, concerning which you have bid me discourse to you, is
this tricksy spirit, many-featured and many-gestured, coming in a
questionable shape, and bringing with it airs from heaven and blasts
from hell. I have spoken to it, and it has shown me my father's ghost.
How shall I speak of it, and tell you what it has taught me? You must
think my alembic a nice one indeed, since you bid me to the analysis of
those subtle and finely mingled forces. You have sent for me, perhaps,
to receive a lesson instead of giving one. You may intend that, having
tried and failed in this task, I shall learn, for the future, the
difficult lesson of holding my peace. For so benevolent, so
disinterested an intention, I may have more occasion to thank you
beforehand, than you shall find to thank me, having heard me.
But, since a text is supposed to make it sure that the sermon shall have
in it one good sentence, let me take for my text a saying of the
philosopher Kant, who, in one of his treatises, rests much upon the
distinction to be made between logical and real or substantial
opposition. According to him, a logical opposition is brought in view
when one attribute of a certain thing is at once affirmed and denied.
The statement of a body which should be at once stationary and in motion
would imply such a contradiction, of which the result will be _nihil
A real or substantial opposition is found where two contradictory
predicates are recognized as coexistent in the same subject. A body
impelled in one direction by a given force, and in another by its
opposite, is easily cogitable. One force neutralizes the other, but the
result is something, viz., rest. Let us keep in mind this distinction
between opposites which exclude each other, and opposites which can
coexist, while we glance at the contradictions of all society, ancient
as well as modern.
How self-contradictory, in the first place, is the nature of man! How
sociable he is! also how unsociable! We have among animals the
gregarious and the solitary. But man is of all animals at once the most
gregarious and the most solitary. This is the first and most universal
contradiction, that of which you find at least the indication in every
individual. But let us look for a moment at the contrasts which make one
individual so unlike to another. We sometimes find it hard to believe
the saying that God hath made of one blood all the nations of the earth.
This in view of the contrast between savage and civilized nations, or
between nations whose habits and beliefs differ one from the other. In
the same race, in the same family also, we shall find the unlikeness
which seems to set the bond of nature at defiance.
See this sly priest, bland and benevolent in proportion to the narrow
limits of the minds which he controls. He hears the shrift of the
brigand and assassin, of the girl mastered by passion, of the unfaithful
wife and avenging husband. He gives an admonition, perhaps a grave one.
He inflicts a penance, light or severe. He does not trust his penitents
with the secret which can heal the plague-sores of humanity,--the secret
of its moral power. But see the meek flock who come to him. See the
whole range of consciences which cannot rest without his dismissing
_fiat_. The rugged peasant drops on his knees beside the confessional.
His horny palm relinquishes, without hesitation, the coin upon which it
has scarcely closed. Or here alights from her carriage some woman of the
world, bright in silks and jewels.