The Century of the
Filled with sad memories or eager hopes, people waited for the turn of the century, and as the clock struck twelve, felt innumerable undefined forebodings. They felt that the new century would certainly give them only one thing, peace. They felt that those who are labouring today would witness no new development in that process of change to which they had consciously or unconsciously contributed their quota.
The events at the turn of the century caused the new century to be represented as a small naked child, descending upon the earth, but drawing himself back in terror at the sight of a world bristling with weapons, a world in which for the opening century there was not an inch of free ground to set one's foot upon. Many people thought over the significance of this picture; they thought how in economic and in actual warfare all the lower passions of man were still aroused; how despite all the tremendous development of civilisation in the century just passed, man had not yet succeeded in giving to the struggle for existence nobler forms. Certainly to the question why this still is so, very different answers were given. Some contented themselves with declaring, after consideration, that things must remain just as they are, since human nature remains the same; that hunger, the propagation of the race, the desire for gold and power, will always control the course of the world. Others again were convinced that if the teaching which has tried in vain for nineteen hundred years to transform the course of the world could one day become a living reality in the souls of men, swords would be turned into pruning hooks.
My conviction is just the opposite. It is that nothing will be different in the mass except in so far as human nature itself is transformed, and that this transformation will take place, not when the whole of humanity becomes Christian, but when the whole of humanity awakens to the consciousness of the "holiness of generation." This consciousness will make the central work of society the new race, its origin, its management, and its education; about these all morals, all laws, all social arrangements will be grouped. This will form the point of view from which all other questions will be judged, all other regulations made. Up to now we have only heard in academic speeches and in pedagogical essays that the training of youth is the highest function of a nation. In reality, in the family, in the school, and in the state, quite other standards are put in the foreground.
The new view of the "holiness of generation" will not be held by mankind until it has seriously abandoned the Christian point of view and taken the view, born thousands of years ago, whose victory has been first foreshadowed in the century just completed.
The thought of development not only throws light on the course of the world that lies behind us, continued through millions of years, with its final and highest point in man; it throws light, too, on the way we have to travel over; it shows us that we physically and psychically are ever in the process of becoming. While earlier days regarded man as a fixed phenomenon, in his physical and psychical relations, with qualities that might be perfected but could not be transformed, it is flow known that he can re-create himself. Instead of a fallen man, we see an incompleted man, out of whom, by infinite modifications in an infinite space of time, a new being can come into existence. Almost every day brings new information about hitherto unsuspected possibilities; tells us of power extended physically or psychically. We hear of a closer reciprocal action between the external and internal world; of the mastery over disease, of the prolongation of life and youth; of increased insight into the laws of physical and psychical origins. People even speak of giving incurable blind men a new kind of capacity of sight, of being able to call back to life the dead; all this and much else which it must be allowed still belongs simply to the region of hypothesis, to what psychical and physical investigators reckon among possibilities. But there are enough great results analysed already to show that the transformations made by man before he became a human being are far from being the last word of his genesis. He who declares to-day that human nature always remains the same, that is, remains just as it did in those petty thousands of years in which our race became conscious of itself, shows in making this statement that he stands on the same level of reflection as an ichthyosaurus of the Jura period, that apparently had not even an intimation of man as a possibility of the future.
But he who knows that man has become what he now is under constant transformations, recognises the possibility of so influencing his future development that a higher type of man will be produced. The human will is found to be a decisive factor in the production of the higher types in the world of animal and plant life. With what concerns our own race, the improvement of the type of man, the ennobling of the human race, the accidental still prevails in both exalted and lower forms. But civilisation should make man conscious of an end and responsible in all these spheres where up to the present he has acted only by impulse, without responsibility. In no respect has culture remained more backward than in those things which are decisive for the formation of a new and higher race of mankind.
It will take the thorough influence of the scientific view of humanity to restore the full naive conviction, belonging to the ancient world, of the significance of the body. In the later period of antiquity, in Socrates and Plato, the soul began to look down upon the body. The Renaissance tried to reconcile the two but the effort was unfortunately not serious enough. Boldness it did not lack, but its effort was not successful in carrying out a task which Goethe himself said must be approached both with boldness and with serious purpose. Only now that we know how soul and body together build up or undermine one another, people are beginning to demand again a second higher innocence in relation to the holiness and the rights of the body.
A Danish writer has shown how the Mosaic Seventh Commandment sinks back into nothing, as soon as one sees that marriage is only an accidental social form for the living together of two people, while the ethically decisive factor is the way they live together. In morality there is taking place a general displacement from objective laws of direction and compulsion to the subjective basis from which actions proceed. Ethics become an ethic of character, a matter dealing with the constitution of the temperament. We demand, we forgive, or we judge according to the inner constitution of the individual; we do not readily call an action immoral which only in an external point of view does not harmonise with the law or is opposed to the law. In each particular case we decide according to the inner circumstances of the individual. Applying this point of view to marriage, we find in the first place that this form offers no guarantee that the proper disposition towards the relation of the two sexes is present. This can exist as well outside as within marriage. Many noble and earnest human beings prefer for their relation the freer form as the more moral one. But as the result of this, the significance of the Seventh Commandment is altered, that states explicitly that every relationship of sex outside of marriage is immoral. People have commenced already to experiment with unions outside of marriage. People are looking for new forms for the common life between man and woman. The whole problem is being made the subject of debate.
In this respect humanity occupies a field of discovery. People are seeing more and more what a complicated subject the whole relation of sex is, how full it is of dangers to the happiness of man. New observations are being constantly made both in regard to the significance of this relation for individuals and for posterity. To bring light gradually into this chaos is supremely important for humanity, and literature should therefore have the greatest possible freedom in this sphere, -- just the opposite to the tendencies of the present day that would limit this freedom. While I fully agree with what has been said I should like to state that the greatest obstacle to the free discussion of this theme is still the Christian way of looking at the origin and nature of man. His only possible escape from the results of the fall is made to consist in his belief in Christ; for with this point of view, there came into Western Europe, by means of Christianity, the opinion that everything concerning the continuation of the race was impure; to be suppressed if possible, and if this could not be done, that it must at least be veiled in silence and obscurity. For Christianity, eternal life, not life in the world, is ever the significant factor. The dualism of existence it tries in the first place to remove by asceticism, not by attempting to ennoble the life of human impulses. This standpoint still continues to be popular in our days, as is shown in its victories through legislation directed against the nude in art and in literature.
The Christian way of looking at the relation of the sexes as something ignoble, alone capable of being made holy by indissoluble marriage, has had great direct influence on man's development during a certain period of time. It has caused progress in self-mastery, which has elevated the life of the soul. Modesty, domesticity, sincerity, have been promoted by it; these along with innumerable other influences have developed the impulse to love. If these emotions disappeared from love, it would not be human, but only animal.
But allowing that the individual love between every new pair of human beings always requires seclusion and reserve; allowing too that personal modesty always remains an achievement wrought by mankind, differentiating man from the animal world, it is still true that this kind of spirituality, which passes over in silence and shame all the serious questions connected with this subject, or treats them as occasions for ambiguities calling forth joking and blushes, must be rooted out.
Each one from earliest childhood should on every question asked about this subject receive honest answers, suitable for the especial stage of his development. One should be in this way completely enlightened about one's own nature as man or woman, and so acquire a deep feeling of responsibility in relation to one's future duty as man or woman. One should be trained in habits of earnest thought and earnest speaking on this subject. In this way alone can there come into existence a higher type of sex with a higher type of morality.
But at the time when Bjoernsen in Thomas Rendelen brought up the question of training youth to purity through intelligence of nature's laws, I objected to his book on the ground that like the purity sermons of Christianity his efforts were rather directed to the mastery of natural impulses than towards their ennoblement. I showed that Bjoernsen certainly brought up two new points of view, that of bodily health, and that of the ennobling of sex. He did not, as Christianity does, stress the spiritual and personal side of the question. These new points of view of his were significant, because they united the just egoism of the individual with the combining altruism produced by the feeling of solidarity. The great purpose of Bjoernsen's book was to transform inherited characteristics as they are related to man's attitude towards morality. So he proposed to create a sound and happy new generation, in which the sufferings of present day sexual discord should be brought to an end. For this purpose he wished the collaboration of the schools. They were to communicate the knowledge of human beings as members of sex, and to instruct their scholars how, as human beings, they should protect themselves and their posterity.
I objected at that time to this plan, showing that the school was not the place to lay the foundation for such knowledge. It should be slowly and carefully communicated by the mother herself; the school should only give a theoretical basis. More defective still, I found the question of chastity handled essentially and solely as a question of bodily purity, as a negative not a positive ideal. I maintain that only erotic idealism could awaken enthusiasm for chastity. The basis for such idealism must be found in stories, history, and belles-lettres. Information derived from physiology is, in this respect, very inadequate, unless the imagination and the feeling are moved in the same direction. Neither imagination nor feeling can be helped by natural science and bodily exercises alone, and just as little by Christian religious instruction.
No, we must on the basis of natural science attain, in a newer and nobler form, the whole antique love for bodily strength and beauty, the whole antique reverence for the divine character of the continuation of the race, combined with the whole modern consciousness of the soulful happiness of ideal love. Only so can the demand for real chastity save mankind from the torments which sexual divisions and degradations now bring with them. It is profoundly significant that in the world of the past, divinity was associated with woman on the ground of observations concerning the continuation of the race; while in Christianity, woman became divine as the Virgin Mother. Through heathen and Christian thought, reunited and ennobled, the woman will receive a new reverence for herself as a sexual being. Antique and modern love, the love of the senses and the love of soul, will, united and ennobled, induce human beings, men and women alike, to adore again Eros the All-powerful.
To diminish the significance of love, to oppose it as a lowering sensualism, does not mean the elevation of mankind; it means, on the other hand, working for its debasement. For as lowering as sexual life would be if it were continued in man accompanied by a feeling of shame as a characteristic of animal life, it would be just the same if it were regarded as a degrading duty, reluctantly carried out for the preservation of the species.
Antiquity stood higher than the present day, for example when Lycurgus' laws asserted that a people's strength lies in the breast of blooming womanhood. Accordingly in Sparta, the physical development of the woman was watched over as well as of the man, and the age of marriage was determined with reference to a healthy offspring. Higher, too, stood Judaism in relation to the conception of the seriousness of bearing children. This conviction expressed itself in the strictest hygienic legislation known to history. Jewish, like other Oriental legislation, depended, in relation to sexual morality as in relation to diet, on sharp-sighted observations of natural law and disease. The foundation to a new ethic in these questions cannot be laid, until men begin with Old Testament shrewdness and Old Testament seriousness to handle the life questions which the idealism of Christianity has indeed spiritualised but at the same time debased.
This new ethic will call no other common living of man and woman immoral, except that which gives occasion to a weak offspring, and produces bad conditions for the development of their offspring. The Ten Commandments on this subject will not be prescribed by the founders of religion, but by scientists.