Culture Through Action

[Note: This is taken from Hamilton Wright Mabie's Books and Culture.]

Iliad engraving 

It is an interesting fact that the four men who have been accepted as the greatest writers who have yet appeared, used either the epic or the dramatic form. It can hardly have been accidental that Homer and Dante gave their greatest work the epic form, and that Shakespeare and Goethe were in their most fortunate moments dramatists. There must have been some reason in the nature of things for this choice of two literary forms which, differing widely in other respects, have this in common, that they represent life in action. They are very largely objective; they portray events, conditions, and deeds which have passed beyond the stage of thought and have involved the thinker in the actual historical world of vital relationships and dramatic sequence. The lyric poet may sing, if it pleases him, like a bird in the recesses of a garden, far from the noise and dust of the highway and the clamour of men in the competitions of trade and work; but the epic or dramatic poet must find his theme and his inspiration in the stir and movement of men in social relations. He deals, not with the subjective, but with the objective man; with the man whose dreams are no longer visions of the imagination, but are becoming incorporate in some external order; whose passions are no longer seething within him, but are working themselves out in vital consequences; whose thought is no longer purely speculative, but has begun to give form and shape to laws, habits, or institutions. It is the revelation of the human spirit in action which we find in the epic and the drama; the inward life working itself out in material and social relations; the soul of the man becoming, so to speak, externalised.

The epic, as illustrated in the "Iliad" and "Odyssey," deals with a main or central movement in Greek tradition; a series of events which, by reason of their nature and prominence, imbedded themselves in the memory of the Greek race. These events are described in narrative form, with episodes, incidents, and dialogues, which break the long story and relax the strain of attention from time to time, without interrupting the progress of the narrative. There are heroes whose figures stand out in the long story with great distinctness, but we are interested much more in what they do than in what they are; for in the epic, character is subordinate to action. In the dramas of Shakespeare, on the other hand, while action is more constantly employed and is thrown into bolder relief, our deepest interest centres in the actors; the action is no longer the matter of first importance; it is significant mainly because it involves men and women not only in the chain of external consequences, but also in the order of spiritual sequences. We are deeply stirred by our perception of the intimate connection between the possibilities which lie sleeping in the individual life, and the tragic events which are set in motion when those possibilities are realised in action. In both epic and drama men are seen, not in their subjective moods, but in their objective struggles; not in the detachment of the life of speculation and imagination, but in vital association and relation with society in its order and institutions. With many differences, both of spirit and form, the epic and the drama are at one in portraying men in that ultimate and decisive stage which determines individual character and gives history its direction and significance.

And it is from men in action that much of the deepest truth concerning life and character has come; indeed, it is not until we pass out of the region of the speculative, the merely potential, that the word "character" takes on that tremendous meaning with which thousands of years of actual happenings have invested it. A purely ideal worldóa world fashioned wholly apart from the realities which convey definite, concrete revelations of what is in us and in our worldówould necessarily be an unmoral world. The relationships which bind men together and give human intercourse such depth and richness spring into being only when they are actually entered upon; they could never be understood or foreseen in a world of pure thought; nor would it be possible, in such a world, to realise that reaction of the deed upon the doer which creates character, nor that far-reaching influence of the deed upon society, and the sequence of events which so often issues in tragedy and from which history derives its immense interest and meaning. A world which stopped short of realisation in action would not only lose the fathomless dramatic interest which inheres in human life, but it would part with all those moral implications of the integrity and persistence of the individual soul, its moral quality and its moral responsibility, which make man something different from the dust which whirls about him on the highway, or the stone over which he stumbles. This is precisely the character of those speculative systems which deny the reality of action and substitute the idea for the deed; such a world does more than suffocate the individual soul; it destroys the very meaning of life by robbing it of moral order and meaning. The end of such a conception of the universe is necessarily annihilation, and its mood is necessarily despair.

"How can a man come to know himself?" asked Goethe. "Never by thinking, but by doing." Now, this knowledge of self in the large sense is precisely the knowledge which ripens and clarifies us, which gives us sanity, repose, and power. To know what is in humanity and what life means to humanity, we must study humanity in its active, not in its passive, moods; in the hours when it is doing, not thinking. Sooner or later all its thinking which has any reality in it passes on into action. The emotion, passion, thought, impulse, which never gets beyond the subjective stage, dies before birth; and all those philosophies which urge abstinence from action would cut the plant of life at the root; they are, in the last analysis, pleas for suicide. Men really live only as they freely express themselves through thought, emotion, and action. They get at the deepest truth and enter into the deepest relationships only as they act. Inaction involves something more than the disease and decay of certain faculties; it involves the deformity of arrested development, and failure to enter into that larger world of truth which is open to those races alone which live a whole life. It is for this reason that the drama must always hold the first place among those forms which the art of literature has perfected; it is for this reason that Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe, consciously or unconsciously, chose those forms of expression which are specially adapted to represent and illustrate life in action; it is for this reason, among others, that these writers must always play so great a part in the work of educating the race. Culture is, above all things, real and vital; knowledge may deal with abstractions and unrelated bits of fact, but culture must always fasten upon those things which are significant in a spiritual order. It has to do with the knowledge which may become incorporate in a man's nature, and with that knowledge especially which has come to humanity through action. It is this deeper knowledge which holds a lighted torch aloft in the deepest recesses of the soul, or over those abysses of possible experience which open on all sides about every man, which is to be found in the pages of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe, and of all those great artists who have seen men in those decisive and significant moments when they strike into the movement of history, or, through their deeds and sufferings, the order of life suddenly shines forth.



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