Letter V

Letter V

Raphael to Julius.

It would be very unfortunate, my dear Julius, if there were no other way of quieting you than by restoring the first-fruits of your belief in you. I found with delight these ideas, which I saw gaining in you, written down in your papers. They are worthy of a soul like yours, but you could not remain stationary in them. There are joys for every age and enjoyments for each degree of spirits. It must have been a difficult thing for you to sever yourself from a system that was entirely made to meet the wants of your heart. I would wager that no other system will strike such deep roots in you, and, possibly, if left quite to your own direction, you would sooner or later become reconciled to your favorite ideas. You would soon remark the weakness of the opposite system, and then, if both systems appeared equally deficient in proof, you would prefer the most desirable one, or, perhaps, you would find new arguments to preserve at least the essential features of your former theory, even if a few more doubtful points had to be given up.

But all this is remote from my plan. You must arrive at a higher freedom of mind, where you no longer require support. I grant that this is not the affair of a moment. The first aim of the earliest teaching is commonly the subjugation of the mind, and among all the artifices of the art of education this generally succeeds the first. Even you, though endowed with great elasticity of character, yet appear destined to submit readily to the sway of opinions, and even more inclined to this than thousands; and this state of infancy might last very long with you, as you do not readily feel the oppression of it. Your head and heart are in very close connection. A doctrine is sweet to you on account of the teacher. You soon succeeded in finding an interesting side in this doctrine, you ennobled it according to the wants of your heart, and you suffered your mind to be resigned to other points that must needs appear strange to you. You regarded attacks on this doctrine as boyish revenge taken by a slavish soul against the rod of its tutor. You played with your chains, which you thought you carried by your own free will.

I found you in this situation, and the sight gave me pain—how, in the midst of the enjoyment, of your glowing life, and while giving expression to your noblest powers, you were hemmed in by narrow considerations. The very logical consistency with which you acted according to your convictions, and the strength of soul that made every sacrifice light to you, were twofold hinderances to your activity and to your joys. I then resolved to set aside these clumsy efforts by which it had been endeavored to cramp a soul like yours in the measure of ordinary natures. The result of your first exertions favored my intentions. I admit that your imagination was more actively employed upon the work than was your penetration. The loss of your fondest convictions was more than atoned for by your presentiments, which gathered results much more rapidly than the tortoise pace of cold scientific inquiry, passing from the known to the unknown. Your kind of inspired system gave you your first enjoyment in this new field of activity, and I was very careful not to destroy a welcome enthusiasm which was very favorable to the development of your excellent disposition. The scene is now changed. A return into the restrictions of infancy is closed forever. Your way leads onwards, and you require no further precautions.

You must not be surprised to find that a system such as yours cannot resist the searching of a severe criticism. All essays of this kind, equal in breadth and boldness to yours, have had no other fate. It was also most natural that your philosophical progress began with you individually, as with the human race in general. The first object on which man's spirit of inquiry first attempted its strength was, at all times, the universe. Hypotheses relating to the origin of the world, and the combination of its parts, had occupied the greatest thinkers for ages, when Socrates called down the philosophy of his day from heaven to earth. But the limits of human wisdom were too narrow for the proud intellect of his followers. New systems arose on the ruins of the former ones. The penetrating mind of subsequent ages explored the immeasurable field of possible answers to those ever-recurring questions, bearing on the mysterious interior of nature, which could not be disclosed by any human intellect. Some, indeed, succeeded in giving a certain coloring of distinctness, completeness, and evidence to their views. There are many conjuring tricks by which the pride of reason seeks to avoid the disgrace of not being able to exceed the bounds of human nature in extending the circle of its knowledge. It is a frequent conceit with men to believe that they have discovered new truths, when they have dissected a conception into the separate elements out of which it was first compounded by an act of caprice. Not unfrequently an imperceptible assumption lies at the basis of a chain of consequences, whose breaks and deficiencies are cunningly concealed, while the false conclusions are admired as sublime wisdom. In other cases, partial experiences are accumulated to found a hypothesis, and all contradictory phenomena are either ignored, or the meaning of words is changed according to the requirements of the reasoning. Nor is it only the philosophical quack who employs these conjuring tricks to deceive the public; without being conscious of it, the most upright and the least prejudiced thinker uses analogous means to satisfy his thirst for knowledge directly that he issues from the only sphere where reason can legitimately enjoy the fruit of its activity.

After what you have heard me say on former occasions, Julius, these expressions must cause you no little astonishment; yet they are not the product of a sceptical caprice. I could lay before you the foundations on which they rest, but this would require, as prelude, a somewhat dry examination into the nature of human knowledge,—and I prefer to reserve this for a time when you will feel the want of it. You have not yet arrived at that state of mind when humiliating truths on the limits of human knowledge can have any interest for you. Make a first essay with the system which has supplanted your own in your mind. Examine it with the same impartiality as severity. Proceed in the same manner with other theories with which you have recently become acquainted; and if none of them can fully satisfy your requirements, you will ask yourself if, after all, these requirements are reasonable.

Perhaps you will tell me this is a poor consolation. You will infer that resignation is your only refuge after so many brilliant hopes had been raised. "Was it worth while," you will say, "to challenge me to a full exercise of my reason in order to set bounds to it at the very moment when it was beginning to bear the noblest fruit? Was I only to become acquainted with a higher enjoyment in order to feel with a double keenness how painful it is to be thus bounded?"

Nevertheless, it is this very feeling of discouragement that I expressly wish to banish from your soul. My aim is this: to remove all that places an obstacle to the free enjoyment of your being, to bring to life in you the germ of all lofty inspiration—the consciousness of the nobility of your soul. You have been awakened from the slumber in which you were rocked by the slavery of others' opinions; but you would never reach the degree of grandeur to which you are called if you dissipated your strength in the pursuit of an unattainable end. This course was all proper up to the present time; it was the natural consequence of your recently acquired freedom. It was necessary that the ideas which had most engaged you previously should give the first impulse to the activity of your mind.. Among all possible directions that your mind could take, is its present course the most fertile in results? The answer would be given, sooner or later, by your own experience. My part was confined to hastening, if possible, this crisis.

It is a common prejudice to take as a measure of the greatness of man that matter on which he works, and not the manner of his work. But it is certain that a superior Being honors the stamp of perfection even in the most limited sphere, whilst He casts an eye of pity on the vain attempts of the insect which seeks to overlook the universe. It follows from this that I am especially unwilling to agree to the proposition in your papers, which assumes that the high destiny of man is to detect the spirit of the Divine Artist in the work of creation. To express the activity of infinite perfection, I admit that I do not know any sublimer image than art; but you appear to have overlooked an important distinction. The universe is not the pure expression of an ideal, like the accomplished work of a human artist. The latter governs despotically the inanimate matter which he uses to give a body to his ideas. But in the divine work the proper value of each one of its parts is respected, and this conservative respect with which the Great Architect honors every germ of activity, even in the lowliest creature, glorifies it as much as the harmony of the immeasurable whole. Life and liberty to all possible extent are the seal of divine creation; nowhere is it more sublime than where it seems to have departed most widely from its ideal. But it is precisely this highest perfection that prevents us from grasping the limits in which we are at present confined. We embrace only too small a part of the universe, and the explanation of most of its discords is inaccessible to our faculties. Each step we climb in the scale of being will make us more susceptible of these enjoyments of art; but even then their only value will be that of means, and to excite us to an analogous exercise of our activity. The idle admiration of a greatness foreign to ourselves can never be a great merit. A superior man is never wanting in matter for his activity, nor in the forces necessary to become himself a creator in his sphere. This vocation is yours also, Julius; when you have recognized this you will never have a thought of complaining of the limits that your desire of knowledge cannot overstep.

When you have arrived at this conviction I expect to find you wholly reconciled to me. You must first know fully the extent of your strength before you can appreciate the value of its freest manifestation. Till then, continue to be dissatisfied with me, but do not despair of yourself.