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Immortality in Pawn


ISSUE:  Winter 1926

The nineteenth century is likely to be remembered longest, I suppose, for its discovery of the past. That is to say, the past on a universal scale and in the grand manner. A forgotten classical era was recovered by the men of the renaissance, and the medieval world has been gradually revealed to those who come out of it, but these are not to be compared with the unsuspected scene, of such astonishing length and so nearly infinite in variety, that the investigators of the last three or four generations have unrolled before us. At the beginning of the century history was what it had been since Herodotus, a tight little compartment of battles, migrations, and dynasties; before the close it had thrown up the sponge altogether and resolved itself into a dozen or more new sciences to deal with the immensities of life that were thrusting themselves into view. The rise and fall of empires become only recent episodes in a universe of which such diverse fragments as Betelgeuse, one-toed ungulates, man, and the idea of God are found to have grown somehow out of a different and inconceivably remote past and, by presumption and a trace of evidence, to be growing into a different and perhaps as remote a future. It is another sort of world, and one that needs to be thought about after a fashion of its own.

Whether we are to climb, by induction, to the πάνταρε̑ι that Heracleitus had a glimpse of a good while ago remains to be seen. There are, however, two fundamentals of method pointing in that direction that have helped us to take the world apart and give promise of suggesting generalizations by which we may some day put it together again in another pattern. The first, now become axiomatic, is that any subject—almost any—may be approached genetically as well as philosophically or analytically. The second, with which we are less familiar, is that the biological may often, with illuminating results, be correlated and paralleled with the physical and the social. In other words, it is worth while to find out where a thing came from as well as why it exists and what it is made of; and it is also worth while to look for the correspondences between life and matter, of which life is a special case, and between life and society, which is a special case of life.

Consider, for example, those familiar and tremendous realities that go by the names of love and death. The two most intimate of human experiences, they are at the same time powerful directive forces of the universe. Engaged, day in and day out, at the conserving and destroying of life, they have been commonly thought of by the poets and philosophers as warring energies close to the fount of things, and exercise a peculiar fascination on those who see in man’s complex of mechanism and mystery a perpetual battleground of the personal and the fatal. We are not apt to think of them as having natural histories of their own. Yet death and love are by no means heroic facts beyond the experiences of time or change: they have had a beginning, one of them has gone through a far-sweeping development, and the other is moving perhaps toward the catastrophe that certain seers have so passionately affirmed. Their origins, which are in a curious way linked together, may be looked at imaginatively, as in the third chapter of Genesis, or scientifically, as in a drop of ditch-water under a high-powered microscope.

First the ditch-water, as becomes citizens of this enlightened age. It is crowded with a host of minute and various particles called protozoa, each an animal made up of a single cell of living matter having the most primitive structure and organization that we are aware of. Their ancestry reaches back as far as our own, and the generations succeed one another with startling rapidity, yet in a sense they are the oldest of all living things, since it must have been in some form comparable to theirs, though still more elementary, that life first appeared on the earth. The most remarkable fact about many of the protozoa is that they are, materially, immortal. The method of reproducing is a simple division into two or more smaller units, a process which creates a new generation without destroying the old, for though an individual loses its identity in thus giving rise to others its substance has an uninterrupted existence in them, and one can hardly speak of death when there is nothing left to bury. In the higher forms of life it is the specialized germ-plasm alone that possesses this continuity, while the rest of the body decays, but among the protozoa, which are without a “body” of diversified cells, the entire organism lives on through countless fissions and regrowths, maintaining with persistent success the vital balance between waste and repair. It may be killed, of course, in many ways, but it does not normally cease to live; in a unique manner it is exempt from the penalty of natural death to which all other flesh is heir.

This perpetual life of the protozoa may be termed nonsexual. Conjugation sometimes takes place, but it does not appear to be a cause of the reproductive process. True sexuality is found only among higher animals, with the development of a number of specialized parts bound into a complex harmony that could not be reproduced by the primitive act of dividing. There comes then a setting apart of egg-cells and sperm-cells, distinct from the perishable units that make up the body, which by fusion give rise to a new individual possessed of the ancestral inheritance and able to build up a microcosm of its own, after the manner of all life from sponges to man.

Here we have what Agassiz called “the greatest gulf in organic nature.” A body has been bought at the price of death; immortality is put in pawn for love. The protozoa that we see are the humblest members in a towering hierarchy of life whose other ranks reach far above them; but every step in the long ascent was once a new and daring adventure, and at some epoch in the indiscoverable past certain of the one-celled animals accepted for the first time love and death as obscure but inevitable links in the chain of change. Just how the gulf was bridged we do not know. It can be said only that the origin of these two factors lies somewhere within a single great transaction, perhaps the most momentous of those cosmic bargains that life has had at intervals to strike with Nature as a condition of its continued progress.

Elimination by natural death was not, therefore, an aboriginal corollary of life. As Weismann has pointed out, it is an acquired habit, an expedient introduced into the universal scheme as a necessary consequence of sexual reproduction. This method of renewal ensured that bodily defects need seldom be passed on to later generations, since the germ-cells that carry the ancestral traits are not liable to be tainted by the mishaps befalling the body in which they lodge. It made possible the starting of many new lives at once and at successive intervals from the same parents. And in the unification of two inheritances that begins each new life it gave opportunity for organic variation, without” which there could be no advance. In this altered world physical immortality became an impossible simplicity that, could it have persisted, would soon have cluttered the earth with living fossils. The primal endowment of the individual gave way to the new claims of the species. Goethe had perhaps a sight of this truth when he said: “Death is Nature’s expert contrivance to get plenty of life.”

But not too much death. The equation of the old order set a fairly elementary problem in physiology—repair against waste within the confines of a single cell; the balance that had now to be maintained was a complex racial adjustment—the wholesale creation of new lives by love against the wholesale gnawing away of old lives by death. It is not strange there should be a fundamental opposition between the force that preserves life for its future in mind and society and the force that is dragging life back to its forgotten past in mere matter. Love and death were thenceforward to be enemies, and so far as biology is concerned there is no discharge in that war.

The motive power of reproduction by sex is to be called nothing else but love. We are accustomed to use the word in an aesthetic or sublimated sense, but the thing itself can be followed step by step from the dim impulse that brings together two creative cells from the simplest of mortal bodies to its flowering in the finer attributes of human character. It is the same power, working consciously or unconsciously through creatures of the utmost diversity in form and sentience, and it is not too much to say that a single purpose runs through it from the beginning. Love has always been, in a vital sense, unselfish and social, careless of the individual and careful of the type; with many animals it becomes, indeed, a lethal capacity that destroys forthwith those who make use of it, while their young are preserved by a variety of ingenious expedients. At the lowest terms it is merely a blind physical appetite directed toward one of the opposite sex, but as existence becomes more complex and various it plays an ever-increasing part in the broader web of social life. From a fleeting desire for the mate it deepens into a sustained attachment that may endure for a lifetime; it bends down to put under a mother’s and sometimes a father’s care those offspring who are unable to manage for themselves; it reaches out to include in its guidance or protection, even at the sacrifice of life itself, other members of the little shifting communities in which some animals band themselves together. And among a very few species it has struck over into a disinterested friendship, loyalty, reverence it may be, toward man, a being wholly beyond the range of their natural comprehension.

In these latter cases love has already moved out of and away from direct absorption in sex. This widening of scope is its most striking characteristic in man. It remains, as it has always been, the agent of reproduction, and the deeper emotional values that here for the first time attach to it make possible abuse and degradation, but its horizon is limited only by the furthest reach of human thought and activity. In the relations between husband and wife, of both toward their children and the response of children toward parents, of friend to friend, and of men and women toward the family, the group, and the neighborhood in which their obvious interests or satisfactions lie there is, no matter how self-effacing such relations become, hardly more than a translation and humanizing of what may be observed among many of the lower animals. But beyond this love has an almost boundless expansion in the individual and social life of the race. It stands on the one hand as the source and inspiration of man’s achievements in art, literature, science, and craftsmanship, and on the other it commands his allegiance to those various wider communities which concern him solely because he has the welfare of his fellow-beings at heart, culminating, shall we say, in that whole-souled devotion to man as man, wherever or in whatever condition he be, that we recognize today as a mark of the highest ethical culture. Civilization may, in fact, be looked at as the process of the gradual unfolding of this great power in human affairs, and judged by its progress from the center toward the circumference of things.

So far love as a deep-seated biologic function of life and society. What are its fruits? The reciprocal affection of those we care for. The enlargement of personality, and all those acts and conceptions through which personality finds expression. The slow emergence of a world in which blind force and selfishness do not always or completely submerge the efforts of intelligent good will. Fine enough, in all conscience, and among the things that make human fife endurable ; but as gains in the aeonian conflict with death they are of small account. Though the solidarity and continuity of the race be assured, for the individual love is, as ever, the ambassador of loss. Perpetuation of a few names on the walls of memory; the immeasurable influence of each man’s thoughts and deeds and aspirations on those who follow him; a quickening sense of oneness with the earth and all its inhabitants, participation in the universal life of humanity as it deepens and develops through the ages, such as a few of us experience at rare moments of sympathetic insight—these are the only concessions it has wrung from the black camel that kneels before the gates of all. There is no path but leads still to a little heap of dust at the end of the passage. It has been a losing battle, and no more can be said by the searchers into the springs of human conduct from Confucius to Bertrand Russell than that the fight is worth making for its own sake.

But there is more in love than the pagans and the stoics have been able to get out. In the religious consciousness of the race it has carved another kingdom for itself. And here the main-travelled road goes back to Eden. The story of what happened in that morning of the world, as set down with naive simplicity and wisdom, has woven its spell over a long line of philosophers and moralists, whose commentaries range from the Pauline doctrine of original sin to the new Shavian science of metabiology for which the brothers Barnabas stand sponsors. Myth, allegory, fact, or priestly invention, it is clearly a poetic account of the coming of death and love, and it bears a startling resemblance to what the microscope has given us a hint of. Behind the dramatic setting, responsible human actors, and overshadowing person of an interested Deity there stands, essentially, the same cosmic transaction: a new kind of life, at first without distinction of sex and not subject to natural dissolution, reproducing in elementary fashion, gives up physical immortality as a consequence of entering into a state which is founded on and conditioned by the sexual impulse. The world of our fathers, fixing upon the moral emphasis of the old narrative, saw in this act a portentous degradation, a fall from a previous golden age of innocence and grace through deliberate disobedience of divine command. A time colored with the idea of universal development, as ours is, may come to interpret it as a dim anthropomorphic vision of one of the great forward steps in evolution. The one view belongs to the era of the Father; the other i;o the era of the Holy Ghost—or, as men today may prefer to call it, the will to live working its everlasting transmutations through the creative process from amoeba to man. We have not yet got at the real significance of this latter-day era (which is to say, we do not know how to handle scientific fact as a mode of religious verity), and consequently the fundamentals of life have a deeper, if more time-worn, meaning in terms of the old theology than they do in those of our modern assumptions. But when religion, instead of combating or trying to compromise with natural science, learns to use science for its own purpose, as it once before used the philosophy of the Greeks, these fundamentals, in new guise, will loom larger, than before. The story of how love and death came into the world is true, whether it be run in the mental mold of the ancient poet or of the living biologist; but the full measure of its truth is not revealed until we exhaust what the heart of man has done with the forces that were then unleashed on the world.

For it is only in religion that their warfare is accomplished. We may look at two lines of advance converging on this end. The first is the raising of love to a new plane through recognition of the essential place it holds in the higher life of the spirit. Primitive beliefs have nothing to do with it: they are religions of fear and cruelty, and the various forms of what may be termed secular love—sexual, parental, filial, fraternal, and social—have developed to varying degrees alongside of them without affecting their nature or being very much affected by it. One of the most fascinating chapters in pre-history must have been the gradual unfolding of the idea that a vital relationship, which can be thought of only as analogous to the noblest human passion, may exist between man and the unseen power with which he has forever sought contact. Not more than two or three times has this conception been reached independently. Even among the Hebrews—that race who “saw the way the world was going”—we have only fragmentary glimpses of its progress. But that it did come and grew in strength is certain. Affirmations of God’s love for his people and the results of man’s baffled efforts or bitter failures to attain to love for God are scattered through the poetry and history of the Old Testament, rising to a climax in the passionate yearning of Jehovah toward his wayward children—clothed inevitably in the figures of earthly affection and desire—that breaks through the pages of Hosea. Yet it remained an open circuit, an unrealized ideal on the part of man, who lacked power to yield himself to the vision that his prophets saw clearly enough to proclaim.

The second path of development lies through man’s stubborn incredulity of death as a complete and final oblivion, his persistent refusal to take it at its face value as the end of personality. From the crudest animism to the thought of Plotinus or Leibnitz, among races and cultures of the widest diversity in every time of which we have knowledge, he has scarcely ever been without some faith in survival beyond the body. His evidences have ranged from mere dreams and shadows, through that experience of the super-personal and eternal in which all men at certain vivid intervals share, to the close and exalted reasoning of Plato’s “Phaedrus,” and the sort of immortality he has envisaged from a fantastic succession of incarnations here below to the completest self-fulfillment in a wholly spiritual sense. Immortality is not of a necessity a religious idea—witness the cult of spiritism—but it has been held most confidently and satisfyingly as somehow a nearer approach to the divine. The Hebraic literature speaks with no single voice. In recording the life of a people over many centuries it touches, indeed, the extremes of expression. There is to be found the dreary wandering through Sheol that darkened the thinking of their earlier days; there is the blank sophisticated denial of the Preacher; and there is the splendid hope that gleams out from some of the psalms and prophetic writings. Nowhere has it been declared more plainly than in the same utterance of Hosea:

“I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death: O death, where are thy plagues? O grave, where is thy destruction.”

So the old order went out: seeing by flashes but seldom understanding. The materials were there for the tremendous synthesis of life that was achieved suddenly by Jesus. It was he who took the religious intensity of love and the religious assurance of immortality, as theretofore developed in the genius of his own race, and wove them into a single fabric that cast a new meaning and a new purpose about the world’s history, past and future. By a daring leap of the imagination and the will he apprehended love to be the very quintessence of the divine being, and that only through a heightening and universalizing of individual and social love in the realm of the spirit can men come into a perfect unity with their Father, God. And, the highest nature of man being thus made one with the power that is creating and governing the cosmos, it is unthinkable that it should cease to exist: eternal life is taken for granted as an inevitable corollary of universal love. This amazing simplification of religion (which is, I take it, the whole base of his teaching) Jesus proved, in the only manner it can ever be proved, by his character, his ministry, and the complete and unending triumph of his spirit over the way of all flesh.

This is theology; but it is life as well—the ultimate fruition, may we not say, of the biological. For it is, in a very literal sense, the ransom that had been dimly foreshadowed by the old seers and that Christianity has fastened on as the central meaning of its Founder’s career. Immortality was in the first twilight of the world pawned for love; but now love, grown to full stature, gave itself for the redemption of the pledge and by its irresistible strength won back for life the lost infinitude. And with compound interest, as it were: for while the first immortality was a thing of the body, a mere plasmic continuousness on the lowest terms, the last stands at once as the crown of evolution, a passing through nature to eternity by the spirit of man with all the cumulation of personality it has gathered in its agelong ascent out of the past. “Love is strong as death, a very flame of the Lord,” was perhaps the clearest affirmation of the old world; but “God is love . . . now is death swallowed up in victory,” became the glorious certainty of the new. Henceforth mankind could espy more than “a hope beyond the shadow of a dream”: they had the law of love interpreted and fulfilled by the power of love in the heart of him who first found the road into the presence of an ever-living God.

And somewhere along that road we all are. The history of the last two thousand years in Christendom, underlying all its political, social, and ecclesiastical revolutions, is the progress of the world’s painful, halting, and often tragically wrong-headed efforts to understand and live this truth, to accept the deliverance that has been here revealed to it. Or, we may say, these centuries record the world’s unsuccessful attempt to escape from the urgence of what it knows to be its own better self. The will to live, to have life and have it more abundantly, is the purpose that runs through the cosmic process from beginning to end; and it is only man who has perceived the spiritual level to which this commandment at last rises, and only man who tries sometimes to turn his back on it. As Chesterton puts it, he is a contradiction in terms; a beast whose superiority to other beasts consists in having fallen. He alone, seeing what the meaning of life truly is, refuses to yield himself to its demands as they do. Yet the divine love, a veritable hound of heaven that Francis Thompson saw at his back, pursues us down the arches of the years, “Still with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy.”
To accept the universe, is this not the whole duty of man? It can be accepted with the theology of Aquinas or Calvin, with the humanism of Erasmus, with the science of Darwin or Einstein, with the social faith that seems likely to guide the course of the next generation or two. Our dogmas or hypotheses may prove stumbling-blocks; but no genuine understanding of our hearts or of the world without can keep us from giving ourselves over to the Lebensgeist that finds its apotheosis in the universal and the eternal.

Nevertheless, life has been a long time on the way, and there is little reason to suppose that human society as a whole is anywhere near the end of the journey. Salvation is an intensely personal affair; and whatever certain individuals may achieve, for the race death remains the last enemy that shall be destroyed. Poverty, war, crime, waste and injustice of every sort, all man’s historic inhumanity to man will have to go first; and what that lets us in for we are just now beginning to find out. But, by a great paradox, as our brief days on earth become more and more worth living the dissolution of the body will sink gradually to a mere signal for the setting free of life in its higher faculties. The doctors and psychiatrists may, in time, correct our bad habit of wearing out to such a degree that we shall all stroll about for a millenium or so like the Ancients of “Back to Methusaleh.” But physical death is not to be conquered by putting it off: we have got to learn instead how and why to ignore what it claims to be and to welcome it for what it really is. Hunger and love are master impulses in the scheme of things; and if we could look far enough ahead we should see the one losing itself at last in the insatiable spirit of truth, and the other in that perfection of commerce between God and man which brings life and immortality to fight for all humankind.

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