Clement M. Hammond, “Then and Now” (1884)

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XII.

A LECTURE ON THE RISE AND FALL OF AUTHORITY.

Boston, January 23, 2084.

My Dear Louise:

A few evenings ago I had the pleasure of listening to a lecture by Mr. De Demain before the students of Harvard College. The subject was “The Rise and Fall of Authority.” I have written out what I think will give you a fair idea of his argument. Mr. De Demain is a very animated, correct speaker, not eloquent, but earnest.

“When civilization first began to dawn on mankind, authority had its birth. When civilization had fully dawned upon mankind, authority met its death.’’

These were Mr. De Demain’s opening sentences. He continued: “I will not say that this birth was unnatural. Everything being a part of nature, everything must be natural. But because nature is such a tremendous thing and so incomprehensible in many of its phases is no reason why man should not criticise. Nature, outside of man, is blind, unthinking, unknowing. It is moved to action by the force within it, and it acts. Man is the only self-conscious part of nature. It has no other intelligent guiding hand. Man is the greatest thing in nature, so far as man is able to judge. Nature constructs him, develops him, and controls him. But nature’s action on man reflects and gives new action to nature. Briefly, man is nature’s eye. Surely he has a right to criticise.”

In continuing this line of thought Mr. De Demain got a trifle too metaphysical, and I did not take notes for a while. I began when he began as follows:

“Authority set about to construct itself a temple. It took for a site the morass of ignorance,—which then and for thousands of years after was a very large site,—and threw into it nine hundred and ninety-nine out of every thousand human creatures. This was for the foundation. Upon this was reared the structure in which dwelt the kings and princes and statesmen and priests and usurers. It was truly a most magnificent temple, but the only thing between it and the obliterating mud was a living, squirming mass of human beings.

“Occasionally tremors ran through this mass, shaking the temple, tumbling down some of its sacred images, breaking its little graven gods, and leaving wide cracks here and there to be plastered up. Every tremor weakened the structure still more, and marred its magnificence. Now and then a spire would fall and a statue tumble from its niche.

“Still, those who inhabited the decaying edifice found it very comfortable, very pleasant. All who once sojourned within its walls, although these were somewhat marred and cracked, were very anxious to remain forever. And what wonder! It was either a dweller in comfort within or a straggler in the mud without and underneath.

“Shrewd men were those who lived within the temple. They watched carefully the changes in the foundation, and repaired and reconstructed their house that it might withstand the upheavals that shook it.

“For centuries these human beings in the mud thought it a great privilege that they were allowed to exist at all. But after a while the mud dried up somewhat and gave the people a footing. They began to realize that the weight of the temple bore heavily upon them. They rubbed the mud from their eyes, and the need for authority seemed not such a pressing need after all. At last the unintelligent tremors that had weakened the oppressive structure developed into an intelligent quake that toppled over the temple and laid it in a mass of ruins, a wreck too complete to admit of reconstruction. Its debris was scattered and trampled in the now fast-drying mud.”

After Mr. De Demain had finished his lecture, I asked him if it were not true that the people, whom he had represented as wallowing in the mud, built the temple of authority and kept it in repair.

“No,” said he, “the great majority of the people had nothing whatever to do with either, although in some countries at some times they even give the idea that they had. The history of humanity shows that the tendency of the by far greater part of the people has been against authority. Can you name a people, at all progressive, of whom this is not true? The moment a people began to grow intellectually they began a warfare against authority,—not to abolish authority, but to weaken its power. When this power became reduced to the minimum, the natural tendency of humanity suggested entire abolition. A little more progress more widely extended and Anarchy became an established fact.

“So long as humanity continues to progress, so long will the tendency be against authority. If humanity ever reaches a point beyond which there can be no progress, then will come retrogression, and humanity as a whole will, for the first time in the history of the world, tend toward authority. That day may come, but there is no evidence that it must come. The world may cease to develop, the universe may grow old and barren, but man’s brain may still continue to expand I believe that it will continue to grow so long as this planet of ours holds together. There are no signs yet of a tendency toward authority. The State is dead and there is no wish to revive it. It is remembered only as a great evil that has been conquered,—something that was a part of the barbarism of the past It you will, it was a garment which has been outgrown, although I think a strait-jacket which was never needed would be a more fitting simile.”

In a few days Mr. De Demain is to tell me something about supply and demand. I think it may interest you.

Josephine.

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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2132 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.