05 October 2013
The Creature of His Own Creations
The justice of a nation's claim to be regarded as civilized seems to depend mainly upon the degree in which Art has triumphed over Nature. Civilization is the influence of Art, and not Nature, on Man. He mingles his own will with the unchanged essences around him, and becomes in his turn the creature of his own creations.
The end of Life is education. An education is good or bad according to the disposition or frame of mind it induces. If it tend to cherish and develop the religious sentiment, — continuously to remind man of his mysterious relation to God and Nature, — and to exalt him above the toil and drudgery of this matter-of-fact world, it is good.
Civilization we think not only does not accomplish this, but is directly adverse to it. The civilized man is the slave of Matter. Art paves the earth, lest he may soil the soles of his feet; it builds walls that he may not see the Heavens; year in, year out, the sun rises in vain to him; the rain falls and the wind blows, but they do not reach him. From his wigwam of brick and mortar he praises his Maker for the genial warmth of a sun he never saw, or the fruitfulness of an earth he disdains to tread upon. Who says that this is not mockery? So much for the influence of Art.
Our rude forefathers took liberal and enlarged views of things, — rarely narrow or partial. They surren- dered up themselves wholly to Nature; to contemplate her was a part of their daily food. Was she stupendous? so were their conceptions. The inhabitant of a mountain can hardly be brought to use a microscope; he is accustomed to embrace empires in a single glance. Nature is continually exerting a moral influence over man; she accommodates herself to the soul of man. Hence his conceptions are as gigantic as her mountains. We may see an instance of this if we will but turn our eyes to the strongholds of Liberty, — Scotland, Switzerland and Wales. What more stupendous can Art contrive than the Alps? What more sublime than the thunder among the hills? The savage is far-sighted; his eye, like the Poet's,
"Doth glance from Heaven to Earth, from Earth to Heaven."
He looks far into futurity, wandering as familiarly through the Land of Spirits, as the civilized man through his woodlot or pleasure-grounds. His life is practical poetry, a perfect epic. The earth is his hunting-ground; he lives summers and winters; the sun is his time-piece, — he journeys to its rising or its setting; to the abode of Winter, or the land whence Summer comes. He never listens to the thunder but he is re-minded of the Great Spirit, — it is his voice. To him the lightning is less terrible than it is sublime; the rainbow less beautiful than it is wonderful; the sun less warm than it is glorious.
The savage dies and is buried; he sleeps with his forefathers, and before many winters his dust returns to dust again, and his body is mingled with the elements. The civilized man can scarce sleep even in his grave. Not even there are the weary at rest, nor do the wicked cease from troubling. What with the hammering of stone, and the grating of bolts, the worms themselves are wellnigh deceived. Art rears his monument. Learning contributes his epitaph, and Interest adds the "Carey fecit" as a salutary check upon the unearthly emotions which a perusal might otherwise excite.
A nation may be ever so civilized, and yet lack wisdom. Wisdom is the result of education; and education being the bringing-out or development of that which is in man, by contact with the Not-me, — that is by Life, — is far surer in the hands of Nature than of Art.
The savage may be, and often is a sage. Our Indian is more of a man than the inhabitant of a city. He lives as a man, he thinks as a man, he dies as a man. The latter, it is true, is learned. Learning is Art's creature, but it is not essential to the perfect man; it cannot educate. A man may spend days in the study of a single species of animalculoe, invisible to the naked eye, and thus become the founder of a new branch of science, — without having advanced the great objects for which life was given him, at all. The naturalist, the chemist, the mechanist is no more a man for all his learning. Life is still as short as ever, death as inevitable, and the heavens as far off.
HDT--College Composition: "The Mark or Standard by which a Nation is judged to be Barbarous or Civilized. Barbarities of Civilized States." Reproduced in The Life of Henry David Thoreau by F. B. Sanborn, 1917.