The reason passes, like the heart, through certain epochs and transitions, but its development is not so often portrayed. Men seem to have been satisfied with unfolding the passions in their extremes, their aberration, and their results, without considering how closely they are bound up with the intellectual constitution of the individual. Degeneracy in morals roots in a one-sided and wavering philosophy, doubly dangerous, because it blinds the beclouded intellect with an appearance of correctness, truth, and conviction, which places it less under the restraining influence of man's instinctive moral sense. On the other hand, an enlightened understanding ennobles the feelings, – the heart must be formed by the head.
The present age has witnessed an extraordinary increase of a thinking public, by the facilities afforded to the diffusion of reading; the former happy resignation to ignorance begins to make way for a state of half-enlightenment, and few persons are willing to remain in the condition in which their birth has placed then. Under these circumstances it may not be unprofitable to call attention to certain periods of the awakening and progress of the reason, to place in their proper light certain truths and errors, closely connected with morals, and calculated to be a source of happiness or misery, and, at all events, to point out the hidden shoals on which the reason of man has so often suffered shipwreck. Rarely do we arrive at the summit of truth without running into extremes; we have frequently to exhaust the part of error, and even of folly, before we work our way up to the noble goal of tranquil wisdom.
Some friends, inspired by an equal love of truth and moral beauty, who have arrived at the same conviction by different roads, and who view with serener eye the ground over which they have travelled, have thought that it might be profitable to present a few of these resolutions and epochs of thought. They propose to represent these and certain excesses of the inquiring reason in the form of two young men, of unequal character, engaged in epistolary correspondence. The following letters are the beginning of this essay.
The opinions that are offered in these letters can only be true and false relatively, and in the form in which the world is mirrored in the soul of the correspondent, and of him only. But the course of the correspondence will show that the one-sided, often exaggerated and contradictory opinions at length issue in a general, purified, and well-established truth.
Scepticism and free-thinking are the feverish paroxysms of the human mind, and must needs at length confirm the health of well-organized souls by the unnatural convulsion which they occasion. In proportion to the dazzling and seducing nature of error will be the greatness of the triumphs of truth: the demand for conviction and firm belief will be strong and pressing in proportion to the torment occasioned by the pangs of doubt. But doubt was necessary to elicit these errors; the knowledge of the disease had to precede its cure. Truth suffers no loss if a vehement youth fails in finding it, in the same way that virtue and religion suffer no detriment if a criminal denies them.
It was necessary to offer these prefatory remarks to throw a proper light on the point of view from which the following correspondence has to be read and judged.
Julius to Raphael. October.
You are gone, Raphael – and the beauty of nature departs: the sere and yellow leaves fall from the trees, while a thick autumn fog hangs suspended like a bier over the lifeless fields. Solitary, I wander through the melancholy country. I call aloud your name, and am irritated that my Raphael does not answer me.
I had received your last embrace. The mournful sound of the carriage wheels that bore you away had at length died upon my ear. In happier moments I had just succeeded in raising a tumulus over the joys of the past, but now again you stand up before me, as your departed spirit, in these regions, and you accompany me to each favorite haunt and pleasant walk. These rocks I have climbed by your side: by your side have my eyes wandered over this immense landscape. In the dark sanctuary of this beech-grove we first conceived the bold ideal of our friendship. It was here that we unfolded the genealogical tree of the soul, and that we found that Julius was so closely related to Raphael. Not a spring, not a thicket, or a hill exists in this region where some memory of departed happiness does not come to destroy my repose. All things combine to prevent my recovery. Wherever I go, I repeat the painful scene of our separation.
What have you done to me, Raphael? What am I become? Man of dangerous power! would that I had never known or never lost you! Hasten back; come on the wings of friendship, or the tender plant, your nursling, shall have perished. How could you, endowed with such tender feelings, venture to leave the work you had begun, but still so incomplete. The foundations that your proud wisdom tried to establish in my brain and heart are tottering; all the splendid palaces which you erected are crumbling, and the worm crushed to earth is writhing under the ruins.
Happy, heavenly time, when I groped through life, with bandaged eyes, like a drunken man, – when all my knowledge and my wishes were confined to the narrow horizon of my childhood's teachings! Blessed time, when a cheerful sunset raised no higher aspiration in my soul than the wish of a fine day on the morrow; when nothing reminded me of the world save the newspaper; nothing spoke of eternity save the passing bell; only ghost-stories brought to mind the thought of death and judgment; when I trembled at the thought of the devil, and was proportionately drawn to the Godhead! I felt and was happy. Raphael has taught me to think I am on the way to regret that I was ever created.
Creation? No, that is only a sound lacking all meaning, which my reason cannot receive. There was a time when I knew nothing, when no one knew me: accordingly, it is usual to say, I was not. That time is past: therefore it is usual to say that I was created. But also of the millions who existed centuries ago nothing more is now known, and yet men are wont to say, they are. On what do we found the right to grant the beginning and to deny the end? It is assumed that the cessation of thinking beings contradicts Infinite Goodness. Did, then, Infinite Goodness cone first into being at the creation of the world? If there was a period when there were no spirits, Infinite Goodness must have been imperative for a whole eternity. If the fabric of the universe is a perfection of the Creator, He, therefore, lacked a perfection before the creation of the world. But an assumption like this contradicts the idea of perfect goodness, therefore there is no creation. To what have I arrived, Raphael? Terrible fallacy of my conclusions! I give up the Creator as soon as I believe in a God. Wherefore do I require a God, if I suffice without the Creator?
You have robbed me of the thought that gave me peace. You have taught me to despise where I prayed before. A thousand things were venerable in my sight till your dismal wisdom stripped off the veil from them. I saw a crowd of people streaming to church, I heard their enthusiastic devotion poured forth in a common act of prayer and praise; twice did I stand beside a deathbed, and saw – wonderful power of religion! – the hope of heaven triumphant over the terror of annihilation, and the serene light of joy beaming from the eyes of those departing.
"Surely that doctrine must be divine," I exclaimed, "which is acknowledged by the best among men, which triumphs and comforts so wondrously!" Your cold-blooded wisdom extinguished my enthusiasm. You affirmed that an equal number of devotees streamed formerly round the Irmensaeule and to Jupiter's temple; an equal number of votaries, with like exultation, ascended the stake kindled in honor of Brahma. "Can the very feeling," you added, "which you found so detestable in heathenism prove the truth of your doctrine?"
You proceeded to say: "Trust nothing but your own reason. There is nothing holy, save truth." I have obeyed you: I have sacrificed all my opinions, I have set fire to all my ships when I landed on this island, and I have destroyed all my hopes of return. Never can I become reconciled to a doctrine which I joyfully welcomed once. My reason is now all to me – my only warrant for God, virtue, and immortality. Woe to me if I catch this, my only witness, in a contradiction! if my esteem for its conclusions diminishes! if a broken vessel in my brain diverts its action! My happiness is henceforth intrusted to the harmonious action of my sensorium: woe to me if the strings of this instrument give a false note in the critical moments of my life – if my convictions vary with my pulsations!
Julius to Raphael.
Your doctrine has flattered my pride. I was a prisoner: you have led me out into the daylight; the golden shimmer and the measureless vault have enraptured my eye. Formerly, I was satisfied with the modest reputation of being a good son of my father's house, a friend of my friends, a useful member of society. You have changed me into a citizen of the universe. At that time my wishes had not aspired to infringe on the rights of the great: I tolerated these fortunate people because beggars tolerated me. I did not blush to envy a part of the human race, because there was a still larger part of humanity that I was obliged to pity. Meeting you, I learned for the first time that my claims on enjoyment were as well founded as those of my brethren. Now, for the first time, I learned that, raised one stratum above this atmosphere, I weighed just as much and as little as the rulers of this world. Raphael severed all bonds of agreement and of opinion. I felt myself quite free; for reason, as Raphael declared, is the only monarchy in the world of spirits, and I carried my imperial throne in my brain. All things in heaven and earth have no value, no estimation, except that which my reason grants them. The whole creation is mine, for I possess an irresistible omnipotence, and am empowered to enjoy it fully. All spirits – one degree below the most perfect Spirit – are my brethren, because we all obey one rule, and do homage to one supremacy.
How magnificent and sublime this announcement sounds! What a field for my thirst of knowledge! But – unlucky contradiction of nature – this free and soaring spirit is woven together with the rigid, immovable clockwork of a mortal body, mixed up with its little necessities, and yoked to its fate – this god is banished into a world of worms. The immense space of nature is opened to his research, but he cannot think two ideas at the same time. With his eyes he reaches up to the sunny focus of the Godhead, but he himself is obliged to creep after Him slowly and wearily through the elements of time. To absorb one enjoyment he must give up all others: two unlimited desires are too great for his little heart. Every fresh joy costs him the sum of all previous joys. The present moment is the sepulchre of all that went before it. An idyllic hour of love is an intermittent pulsation of friendship.
Wherever I look, Raphael, how limited man appears! How great the distance between his aims and their fulfilment! – yet do not begrudge him his soothing slumber. Wake him not! He was so happy before he began to inquire whither he was to go and whence he came! Reason is a torch in a prison. The prisoner knew nothing of the light, but a dream of freedom appeared over him like a flash in the night which leaves the darkness deeper than before. Our philosophy is the unhappy curiosity of Oedipus, who did not cease to inquire till the dreadful oracle was unravelled. Mayest thou never learn who thou art!
Does your wisdom replace what it has set aside? If you had no key to open heaven, why did you lead me away from earth? If you knew beforehand that the way to wisdom leads through the frightful abyss of doubt, why did you venture the innocence of your friend Julius on this desperate throw? —
If to the good, which I propose to do,
Something very bad borders far too near,
I prefer not to do this good.
You have pulled down a shelter that was inhabited, and founded a splendid but lifeless palace on the spot.
Raphael, I claim my soul from you! I am unhappy. My courage is gone. I despair of my own strength. Write to me soon! – your healing hand alone can pour balm on my burning wounds.
Raphael to Julius.
Julius, happiness such as ours, if unbroken, would be too much for human lot. This thought often haunted me even in the full enjoyment of our friendship. This thought, then darkening our happiness, was a salutary foretaste, intended to mitigate the pain of my present position. Hardened in the stern school of resignation, I am still more susceptible of the comfort of seeing in our separation a slight sacrifice whose merit may win from fate the reward of our future reunion. You did not yet know what privation was. You suffer for the first time.
And yet it is perhaps an advantage for you that I have been torn from you exactly at this time. You have to endure a malady, from which you can only perfectly recover by your own energy, so as not to suffer a relapse. The more deserted you feel, the more you will stir up all healing power in yourself, and in proportion as you derive little or no benefit from temporary and deceptive palliatives, the more certainly will you succeed in eradicating the evil fundamentally.
I do not repent that I roused you from your dream, though your present position is painful. I have done nothing more than hasten a crisis, which every soul like yours has sooner or later to pass through, and where the essential thing is, at what time of life it is endured. There are times and seasons when it is terrible to doubt truth and virtue. Woe to the man who has to fight through the quibbles of a self-sufficient reason while he is immersed in the storms of the passions. I have felt in its fulness all that is expressed by this, and, to preserve you from similar troubles I could devise no means but to ward off the pestilence by timely inoculation.
Nor could I, my dear Julius, choose a more propitious time? I met you in the full and glorious bloom of youthful intelligence and bodily vigor, before you had been oppressed by care or enchained by passion; fully prepared, in your freedom and strength, to stand the great fight, of which a sublime tranquillity, produced by conviction, is the prize. Truth and error had not yet been interwoven with your interests. Your enjoyments and virtues were independent of both. You required no images of terror to tear you from low dissipation. The feeling for nobler joys had made these odious to you. You were good from instinct and from unconsecrated moral grace. I had nothing to fear for your morality, if a building crumbled down on which it was not founded. Nor do your anxieties alarm me, though you may conjure up many dark anticipations in your melancholy mood. I know you better, Julius!
You are ungrateful, too! You despise the reason, and forget what joys it has procured you. Though you might have escaped the dangers of doubt all your life, still it was my duty not to deprive you of the pleasures which you were capable of enjoying. The height at which you were was not worthy of you. The way up which you climbed gave you compensation for all of which I deprived you. I still recall the delight – with what delight you blessed the moment when the bandage dropped from your eyes! The warmth with which you grasped the truth possibly may have led your all-devouring imagination to an abyss at sight of which you draw back shuddering.
I must follow the course of your inquiries to discover the sources of your complaints. You have written down the results of your thoughts: send me these papers and then I will answer you.