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DEATH is not an entity, but an event; not a force, but a state. Life is the positive experience, death the negation. Yet in nearly every literature death has been personified, while no kindred prosopopoeia of life is anywhere to be found. With the Greeks, Thanatos was a god; with the Romans, Mors was a goddess: but no statue was ever moulded, no altar ever raised, to Zoe or Vita. At first thought, we should anticipate the reverse of this; but, in truth, the fact is quite naturally as it is. Life is a continuous process; and any one who makes the effort will find how difficult it is to conceive of it as an individual being, with distinctive attributes, functions, and will. It is an inward possession which we familiarly experience, and in the quiet routine of custom we feel no shock of surprise at it, no impulse to give it imaginative shape and ornament. On the contrary, death is an impending occurrence, something which we anticipate and shudder at, something advancing toward us in time to strike or seize us. Its externality to our living experience, its threatening approach, the mystery and alarm enwrapping it, are provocative conditions for fanciful treatment, making personifications inevitable.
With the Old Aryan race of India, death is Yama, the soul of the first man, departed to be the king of the subterranean realm of the subsequent dead, and returning to call after him each of his descendants in turn. To the good he is mild and lovely, but to the impious he is clad in terror and acts with severity. The purely fanciful character of this thought is obvious; for, according to it, death was before death, since Yama himself died. Yama does not really represent death, but its arbiter and messenger. He is the ruler over the dead, who himself carries the summons to each mortal to become his subject.
In the Hebrew conception, death was a majestic angel, named Sammael, standing in the court of heaven, and flying thence over the earth, armed with a sword, to obey the behests of God. The Talmudists developed and dressed up the thought with many details, half sublime, half fantastic. He strides through the world at a step. From the soles of his feet to his shoulders he is full of eyes. Every person in the moment of dying sees him; and at the sight the soul retreats, running through all the limbs, as if asking permission to depart from them. From his naked sword fall three drops: one pales the countenance, one destroys the vitality, one causes the body to decay. Some Rabbins say he bears a cup from which the dying one drinks, or that he lets fall from the point of his sword a single acrid drop upon the sufferer's tongue: this is what is called "tasting the bitterness of death." Here again, we see, it is not strictly death that is personified. The embodiment is not of the mortal act, but of the decree determining that act. The Jewish angel of death is not a picture of death in itself, but of God's decree coming to the fated individual who is to die.
The Romans give descriptions of death as a female figure in dark robes, with black wings, with ravenous teeth, hovering everywhere, darting here and there, eager for prey. Such a view is a personification of the mysteriousness, suddenness, inevitableness, and fearfulness, connected with the subject of death in men's minds, rather than of death itself. These thoughts are grouped into an imaginary being, whose sum of attributes are then ignorantly both associated with the idea of the unknown cause and confounded with the visible effect. It is, in a word, mere poetry, inspired by fear and unguided by philosophy.
Death has been shown in the guise of a fowler spreading his net, setting his snares for men. But this image concerns itself with the accidents of the subject, the unexpectedness of the fatal blow, the treacherous springing of the trap, leaving the root of the matter untouched. The circumstances of the mortal hour are infinitely varied, the heart of the experience is unchangeably the same: there are a thousand modes of dying, but there is only one death. Ever so complete an exhibition of the occasions and accompaniments of an event is no explanation of what the inmost reality of the event is.
The Norse conception of death as a vast, cloudy presence, darkly sweeping on its victims, and bearing them away wrapped in its sable folds, is evidently a free product of imagination brooding not so much on the distinct phenomena of an individual case as on the melancholy mystery of the disappearance of men from the familiar places that knew them once but miss them now. In a somewhat kindred manner, the startling magnificence of the sketch in the Apocalypse, of death on the pale horse, is a product of pure imagination meditating on the wholesale slaughter which was to deluge the earth when God's avenging judgments fell upon the enemies of the Christians. But to consider this murderous warrior on his white charger as literally death, would be as erroneous as to imagine the bare armed executioner and the guillotine to be themselves the death which they inflict. No more appalling picture of death has been drawn than that by Milton, whose dire image has this stroke of truth in it, that its adumbrate formlessness typifies the disorganizing force which reduces all cunningly built bodies of life to the elemental wastes of being. The incestuous and mistreated progeny of Sin is thus delineated:
If shape it might be call'd that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,
Or substance might be call'd that shadow seem'd,
For each seem'd either, black it stood as night,
Fierce as ten furies, terrible as hell,
And shook a dreadful dart: what seem'd his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on."
But the most common personification of death is as a skeleton brandishing a dart; and then he is called the grisly king of terrors; and people tremble at the thought of him, as children do at the name of a bugbear in the dark. What sophistry this is! It is as if we should identify the trophy with the conqueror, the vestiges left in the track of a traveller with the traveller himself. Death literally makes a skeleton of man; so man metaphorically makes a skeleton of Death! All these representations of death, however beautiful, or pathetic, or horrible, are based on superficial appearances, misleading analogies, arbitrary fancies, perturbed sensibilities, not on a firm hold of realities, insight of truth, and philosophical analysis. They are all to be brushed aside as phantoms of nightmare or artificial creations of fiction. Poetry has mostly rested, hitherto, on no veritable foundation of science, but on a visionary foundation of emotion. It has wrought upon flitting, sensible phenomena rather than upon abiding substrata of facts. For example, a tender Greek bard personified the life of a tree as a Hamadryad, the moving trunk and limbs her undulating form and beckoning arms, the drooping boughs her hair, the rustling foliage her voice. A modern poet, endowed with the same strength of sympathy, but acquainted with vegetable chemistry, might personify sap as a pale, liquid maiden, ascending through the roots and veins to meet air, a blue boy robed in golden warmth, descending through the leaves, with a whisper, to her embrace. So the personifications of death in literature, thus far, give us no penetrative glance into what it really is, help us to no acute definition of it, but poetically fasten on some feature, or accident, or emotion, associated with it.
There are in popular usage various metaphors to express what is meant by death. The principal ones are, extinction of the vital spark, departing, expiring, cutting the thread of life, giving up the ghost, falling asleep. These figurative modes of speech spring from extremely imperfect correspondences. Indeed, the unlikenesses are more important and more numerous than the likenesses. They are simply artifices to indicate what is so deeply obscure and intangible. They do not lay the secret bare, nor furnish us any aid in reaching to the true essence of the question. Moreover, several of them, when sharply examined, involve a fatal error. For example, upon the admitted supposition that in every case of dying the soul departs from the body, still, this separation of the soul from the body is not what constitutes death. Death is the state of the body when the soul has left it. An act is distinct from its effects. We must, therefore, turn from the literary inquiry to the metaphysical and scientific method, to gain any satisfactory idea and definition of death.
A German writer of extraordinary acumen and audacity has said, "Only before death, but not in death, is death death. Death is so unreal a being that he only is when he is not, and is not when he is."This paradoxical and puzzling as it may appear is susceptible of quite lucid interpretation and defence. For death is, in its naked significance, the state of not being. Of course, then, it has no existence save in the conceptions of the living. We compare a dead person with what he was when living, and instinctively personify the difference as death. Death, strictly analyzed, is only this abstract conceit or metaphysical nonentity. Death, therefore, being but a conception in the mind of a living person, when that person dies death ceases to be at all. And thus the realization of death is the death of death. He annihilates himself, dying with the dart he drives. Having in this manner disposed of the personality or entity of death, it remains as an effect, an event, a state. Accordingly, the question next arises, What is death when considered in this its true aspect?
A positive must be understood before its related negative can be intelligible. Bichat defined life as the sum of functions by which death is resisted. It is an identical proposition in verbal disguise, with the fault that it makes negation affirmation, passiveness action. Death is not a dynamic agency warring against life, but simply an occurrence. Life is the operation of an organizing force producing an organic form according to an ideal type, and persistently preserving that form amidst the incessant molecular activity and change of its constituent substance. That operation of the organic force which thus constitutes life is a continuous process of waste, casting off the old exhausted matter, and of replacement by assimilation of new material. The close of this process of organific metamorphosis and desquamation is death, whose finality is utter decomposition, restoring all the bodily elements to the original inorganic conditions from which they were taken. The organic force with which life begins constrains chemical affinity to work in special modes for the formation of special products: when it is spent or disappears, chemical affinity is at liberty to work in its general modes; and that is death. "Life is the co ordination of actions; the imperfection of the co ordination is disease, its arrest is death." In other words, "life is the continuous adjustment of relations in an organism with relations in its environment." Disturb that adjustment, and you have malady; destroy it, and you have death. Life is the performance of functions by an organism; death is the abandonment of an organism to the forces of the universe. No function can be performed without a waste of the tissue through which it is performed: that waste is repaired by the assimilation of fresh nutriment. In the balancing of these two actions life consists. The loss of their equipoise soon terminates them both; and that is death. Upon the whole, then, scientifically speaking, to cause death is to stop "that continuous differentiation and integration of tissues and of states of consciousness" constituting life. Death, therefore, is no monster, no force, but the act of completion, the state of cessation; and all the bugbears named death are but poor phantoms of the frightened and childish mind.
Life consisting in the constant differentiation of the tissues by the action of oxygen, and their integration from the blastema furnished by the blood, why is not the harmony of these processes preserved forever? Why should the relation between the integration and disintegration going on in the human organism ever fall out of correspondence with the relation between the oxygen and food supplied from its environment? That is to say, whence originated the sentence of death upon man? Why do we not live immortally as we are? The current reply is, we die because our first parent sinned. Death is a penalty inflicted upon the human race because Adam disobeyed his Maker's command. We must consider this theory a little.
The narrative in Genesis, of the creation of man and of the events in the Garden of Eden, cannot be traced further back than to the time of Solomon, three thousand years after the alleged occurrences it describes. This portion of the book of Genesis, as has long been shown, is a distinct document, marked by many peculiarities, which was inserted in its present place by the compiler of the elder Hebrew Scriptures somewhere between seven and ten centuries before Christ. Ewald has fully demonstrated that the book of Genesis consists of many separate fragmentary documents of different ages, arranged together by a comparatively late hand. Among the later of these pieces is the account of the primeval pair in paradise. Grotefend argues, with much force and variety of evidence, that this story was derived from a far more ancient legend book, only fragments of which remained when the final collection was made of this portion of the Old Testament. Many scholars have thought the account was not of Hebrew origin, but was borrowed from the literary traditions of some earlier Oriental nation. Rosenmuller, Von Bohlen, and others, say it bears unmistakable relationship to the Zendavesta which tells how Ahriman, the old Serpent, beguiled the first pair into sin and misery. These correspondences, and also that between the tree of life and the Zoroastrian plant hom, which gives life and will produce the resurrection, are certainly striking. Buttmann sees in God's declaration to Adam, "Behold, I have given you for food every herb bearing seed, and every tree in which is fruit bearing seed," traces of a prohibition of animal food. This was not the vestige of a Hebrew usage, but the vegetarian tradition of some sect eschewing meat, a tradition drawn from South Asia, whence the fathers of the Hebrew race came. Gesenius says, "Many things in this narrative were drawn from older Asiatic tradition." Knobel also affirms that numerous matters in this relation were derived from traditions of East Asian nations. Still, it is not necessary to suppose that the writer of the account in Genesis borrowed any thing from abroad. The Hebrew may as well have originated such ideas as anybody else. The Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Chaldeans, the Persians, the Etruscans, have kindred narratives held as most ancient and sacred. The Chinese, the Sandwich Islanders, the North American Indians, also have their legends of the origin and altered fortunes of the human race. The resemblances between many of these stories are better accounted for by the intrinsic similarities of the subject, of the mind, of nature, and of mental action, than by the supposition of derivation from one another.
Regarding the Hebrew narrative as an indigenous growth, then, how shall we explain its origin, purport, and authority? Of course we cannot receive it as a miraculous revelation conveying infallible truth. The Bible, it is now acknowledged, was not given in the providence of God to teach astronomy, geology, chronology, and the operation of organic forces, but to help educate men in morality and piety. It is a religious, not a scientific, work. Some unknown Hebrew poet, in the early dawn of remembered time, knowing little metaphysics and less science, musing upon the fortunes of man, his wickedness, sorrow, death, and impressed with an instinctive conviction that things could not always have been so, casting about for some solution of the dim, pathetic problem, at last struck out the beautiful and sublime poem recorded in Genesis, which has now for many a century, by Jews, Christians, Mohammedans, been credited as authentic history. With his own hands God moulds from earth an image in his own likeness, breathes life into it, and new made man moves, lord of the scene, and lifts his face, illuminated with soul, in submissive love to his Creator. Endowed with free will, after a while he violated his Maker's command: the divine displeasure was awakened, punishment ensued, and so rushed in the terrible host of ills under which we suffer. The problem must early arise: the solution is, to a certain stage of thought, at once the most obvious and the most satisfactory conceivable. It is the truth. Only it is cast in imaginative, not scientific, form, arrayed in emblematic, not literal, garb. The Greeks had a lofty poem by some early unknown author, setting forth how Prometheus formed man of clay and animated him with fire from heaven, and how from Pandora's box the horrid crew of human vexations were let into the world. The two narratives, though most unequal in depth and dignity, belong in the same literary and philosophical category. Neither was intended as a plain record of veritable history, each word a naked fact, but as a symbol of its author's thoughts, each phrase the metaphorical dress of a speculative idea.
Eichhorn maintains, with no slight plausibility, that the whole account of the Garden of Eden was derived from a series of allegorical pictures which the author had seen, and which he translated from the language of painting into the language of words. At all events, we must take the account as symbolic, a succession of figurative expressions. Many of the best minds have always so considered it, from Josephus to Origen, from Ambrose to Kant. What, then, are the real thoughts which the author of this Hebrew poem on the primal condition of man meant to convey beneath his legendary forms of imagery? These four are the essential ones. First, that God created man; secondly, that he created him in a state of freedom and happiness surrounded by blessings; third, that the favored subject violated his Sovereign's order; fourth, that in consequence of this offence he was degraded from his blessed condition, beneath a load of retributive ills. The composition shows the characteristics of a philosopheme or a myth, a scheme of conceptions deliberately wrought out to answer an inquiry, a story devised to account for an existing fact or custom. The picture of God performing his creative work in six days and resting on the seventh, may have been drawn after the septenary division of time and the religious separation of the Sabbath, to explain and justify that observance. The creation of Eve out of the side of Adam was either meant by the author as an allegoric illustration that the love of husband and wife is the most powerful of social bonds, or as a pure myth seeking to explain the incomparable cleaving together of husband and wife by the entirely poetic supposition that the first woman was taken out of the first man, bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh. All early literatures teem with exemplifications of this process, a spontaneous secretion by the imagination to account for some presented phenomenon. Or perhaps this part of the relation "and he called her woman [manness], because she was taken out of man" may be an instance of those etymological myths with which ancient literature abounds. Woman is named Isha because she was taken out of man, whose name is Ish. The barbarous treatment the record under consideration has received, the utter baselessness of it in the light of truth as foundation for literal belief, find perhaps no fitter exposure than in the fact that for many centuries it was the prevalent faith of Christendom that every woman has one rib more than man, a permanent memorial of the Divine theft from his side. Unquestionably, there are many good persons now who, if Richard Owen should tell them that man has the same number of ribs as woman, would think of the second chapter of Genesis and doubt his word!
There is no reason for supposing the serpent in this recital to be intended as a representative of Satan. The earliest trace of such an interpretation is in the Wisdom of Solomon, an anonymous and apocryphal book composed probably a thousand years later. What is said of the snake is the most plainly mythical of all the portions. What caused the snake to crawl on his belly in the dust, while other creatures walk on feet or fly with wings? Why, the sly, winding creature, more subtle, more detestable, than any beast of the field, deceived the first woman; and this is his punishment! Such was probably the mental process in the writer. To seek a profound and true theological dogma in such a statement is as absurd as to seek it in the classic myth that the lapwing with his sharp beak chases the swallow because he is the descendant of the enraged Tereus who pursued poor Progne with a drawn sword. Or, to cite a more apposite case, as well might we seek a reliable historical narrative in the following Greek myth. Zeus once gave man a remedy against old age. He put it on the back of an ass and followed on foot. It being a hot day, the ass grew thirsty, and would drink at a fount which a snake guarded. The cunning snake knew what precious burden the ass bore, and would not, except at the price of it, let him drink. He obtained the prize; but with it, as a punishment for his trick, he incessantly suffers the ass's thirst. Thus the snake, casting his skin, annually renews his youth, while man is borne down by old age. In all these cases the mental action is of the same kind in motive, method, and result.
The author of the poem contained in the third chapter of Genesis does not say that man was made immortal. The implication plainly is that he was created mortal, taken from the dust and naturally to return again to the dust. But by the power of God a tree was provided whose fruit would immortalize its partakers. The penalty of Adam's sin was directly, not physical death, but being forced in the sweat of his brow to wring his subsistence from the sterile ground cursed for his sake; it was indirectly literal death, in that he was prevented from eating the fruit of the tree of life. "God sent him out of the garden, lest he eat and live forever." He was therefore, according to the narrative, made originally subject to death; but an immortalizing antidote was prepared for him, which he forfeited by his transgression. That the writer made use of the trees of life and knowledge as embellishing allegories is most probable. But, if not, he was not the only devout poet who, in the early times, with sacred reverence believed the wonders the inspiring muse gave him as from God. It is not clear from the Biblical record that Adam was imagined the first man. On the contrary, the statement that Cain was afraid that those who met him would kill him, also that he went to the land of Nod and took a wife and builded a city, implies that there was another and older race. Father Peyrere wrote a book, called "Praadamita," more than two hundred years ago, pointing out this fact and arguing that there really were men before Adam. If science should thoroughly establish the truth of this view, religion need not suffer; but the common theology, inextricably built upon and intertangled with the dogma of "original sin," would be hopelessly ruined. But the leaders in the scientific world will not on that account shut their eyes nor refuse to reason. Christians should follow their example of truth seeking, with a deeper faith in God, fearless of results, but resolved upon reaching reality.
It is a very singular and important fact that, from the appearance in Genesis of the account of the creation and sin and punishment of the first pair, not the faintest explicit allusion to it is subsequently found anywhere in literature until about the time of Christ. Had it been all along credited in its literal sense, as a divine revelation, could this be so? Philo Judaus gives it a thoroughly figurative meaning. He says, "Adam was created mortal in body, immortal in mind. Paradise is the soul, piety the tree of life, discriminative wisdom the tree of knowledge; the serpent is pleasure, the flaming sword turning every way is the sun revolving round the world." Jesus himself never once alludes to Adam or to any part of the story of Eden. In the whole New Testament there are but two important references to the tradition, both of which are by Paul. He says, in effect, "As through the sin of Adam all are condemned unto death, so by the righteousness of Christ all shall be justified unto life." It is not a guarded doctrinal statement, but an unstudied, rhetorical illustration of the affiliation of the sinful and unhappy generations of the past with their offending progenitor, Adam, of the believing and blessed family of the chosen with their redeeming head, Christ. He does not use the word death in the Epistle to the Romans prevailingly in the narrow sense of physical dissolution, but in a broad, spiritual sense, as appears, for example, in these instances: "To be carnally minded is death;" "The law of the spirit of life in Christ hath made me free from the law of sin and death." For the spiritually minded were not exempt from bodily death. Paul himself died the bodily death. His idea of the relations of Adam and Christ to humanity is more clearly expressed in the other passage already alluded to. It is in the Epistle to the Corinthians, and appears to be this. The first man, Adam, was of the earth, earthy, the head and representative of a corruptible race whose flesh and blood were never meant to inherit the kingdom of God. The second man, Christ the Lord, soon to return from heaven, was a quickening spirit, head and representative of a risen spiritual race for whom is prepared the eternal inheritance of the saints in light. As by the first man came death, whose germ is transmitted with the flesh, so by the second man comes the resurrection of the dead, whose type is seen in his glorified ascension from Hades to heaven. "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." Upon all the line of Adam sin has entailed, what otherwise would not have been known, moral death and a disembodied descent to the under world. But the gospel of Christ, and his resurrection as the first fruits of them that slept, proclaim to all those that are his, at his speedy coming, a kindred deliverance from the lower gloom, an investiture with spiritual bodies, and an admission into the kingdom of God. According to Paul, then, physical death is not the retributive consequence of Adam's sin, but is the will of the Creator in the law of nature, the sowing of terrestrial bodies for the gathering of celestial bodies, the putting off of the image of the earthy for the putting on of the image of the heavenly. The specialty of the marring and punitive interference of sin in the economy is, in addition to the penalties in moral experience, the interpolation, between the fleshly "unclothing" and the spiritual "clothing upon," of the long, disembodied, subterranean residence, from the descent of Abel into its palpable solitude to the ascent of Christ out of its multitudinous world. From Adam, in the flesh, humanity sinks into the grave realm; from Christ, in the spirit, it shall rise into heaven. Had man remained innocent, death, considered as change of body and transition to heaven, would still have been his portion; but all the suffering and evil now actually associated with death would not have been.
Leaving the Scriptures, the first man appears in literature, in the history of human thought on the beginning of our race, in three forms. There is the Mythical Adam, the embodiment of poetical musings, fanciful conceits, and speculative dreams; there is the Theological Adam, the central postulate of a group of dogmas, the support of a fabric of controversial thought, the lay figure to fill out and wear the hypothetical dresses of a doctrinal system; and there is the Scientific Adam, the first specimen of the genus man, the supposititious personage who, as the earliest product, on this grade, of the Creative organic force or Divine energy, commenced the series of human generations. The first is a hypostatized legend, the second a metaphysical personification, the third a philosophical hypothesis. The first is an attractive heap of imaginations, the next a dialectic mass of dogmatisms, the last a modest set of theories.
Philo says God made Adam not from any chance earth, but from a carefully selected portion of the finest and most sifted clay, and that, as being directly created by God, he was superior to all others generated by men, the generations of whom deteriorate in each remove from him, as the attraction of a magnet weakens from the iron ring it touches along a chain of connected rings. The Rabbins say Adam was so large that when he lay down he reached across the earth, and when standing his head touched the firmament: after his fall he waded through the ocean, Orion like. Even a French Academician, Nicolas Fleurion, held that Adam was one hundred and twenty three feet and nine inches in height. All creatures except the angel Eblis, as the Koran teaches, made obeisance to him. Eblis, full of envy and pride, refused, and was thrust into hell by God, where he began to plot the ruin of the new race. One effect of the forbidden fruit he ate was to cause rotten teeth in his descendants. He remained in Paradise but one day. After he had eaten from the prohibited tree, Eve gave of the fruit to the other creatures in Eden, and they all ate of it, and so became mortal, with the sole exception of the phoenix, who refused to taste it, and consequently remained immortal.
The Talmud teaches that Adam would never have died had he not sinned. The majority of the Christian fathers and doctors, from Tertullian and Augustine to Luther and Calvin, have maintained the same opinion. It has been the orthodox that is, the prevailing doctrine of the Church, affirmed by the Synod at Carthage in the year four hundred and eighteen, and by the Council of Trent in the year fifteen hundred and forty five. All the evils which afflict the world, both moral and material, are direct results of Adam's sin. He contained all the souls of men in himself; and they all sinned in him, their federal head and legal representative. When the fatal fruit was plucked,
"Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat,
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe
That all was lost."
Earthquakes, tempests, pestilences, poverty, war, the endless brood of distress, ensued. For then were
The poles of earth twice ten degrees and more
From the sun's axle, and with labor push'd
Oblique the centric globe."
Adam's transcendent faculties and gifts were darkened and diminished in his depraved posterity, and all base propensities let loose to torment, confuse, and degrade them. We can scarcely form a conception of the genius, the beauty, the blessedness, of the first man, say the theologians in chorus. Augustine declares, "The most gifted of our time must be considered, when compared with Adam in genius, as tortoises to birds in speed." Adam, writes Dante, "was made from clay, accomplished with every gift that life can teem with." Thomas Aquinas teaches that "he was immortal by grace though not by nature, had universal knowledge, fellowshipped with angels, and saw God." South, in his famous sermon on "Man the Image of God," after an elaborate panegyric of the wondrous majesty, wisdom, peacefulness, and bliss of man before the fall, exclaims, "Aristotle was but the rubbish of an Adam, and Athens the rudiments of Paradise!" Jean Paul has amusingly burlesqued these conceits. "Adam, in his state of innocence, possessed a knowledge of all the arts and sciences, universal and scholastic history, the several penal and other codes of law, and all the old dead languages, as well as the living. He was, as it were, a living Pegasus and Pindus, a movable lodge of sublime light, a royal literary society, a pocket seat of the Muses, and a short golden age of Louis the Fourteenth!"
Adam has been called the Man without a Navel, because, not being born of woman, there could be no umbilical cord to cut. The thought goes deep. In addition to the mythico theological pictures of the mechanical creation and superlative condition of the first man, two forms of statement have been advanced by thoughtful students of nature. One is the theory of chronological progressive development; the other is the theory of the simultaneous creation of organic families of different species or typical forms. The advocate of the former goes back along the interminable vistas of geologic time, tracing his ancestral line through the sinking forms of animal life, until, with the aid of a microscope, he sees a closed vesicle of structureless membrane; and this he recognises as the scientific Adam. This theory has been brought into fresh discussion by Mr. Darwin in his rich and striking work on the Origin of Species The other view contrasts widely with this, and is not essentially different from the account in Genesis. It shows God himself creating by regular methods, in natural materials, not by a vicegerent law, not with the anthropomorphitic hands of an external potter. Every organized fabric, however complex, originates in a single physiological cell. Every individual organism from the simple plant known as red snow to the oak, from the zoophyte to man is developed from such a cell. This is unquestionable scientific knowledge. The phenomenal process of organic advancement is through growth of the cell by selective appropriation of material, self multiplication of the cell, chemical transformations of the pabulum of the cell, endowment of the muscular and nervous tissues produced by those transformations with vital and psychical properties.
But the essence of the problem lies in the question, Why does one of these simple cells become a cabbage, another a rat, another a whale, another a man? Within the limits of known observation during historic time, every organism yields seed or bears progeny after its own kind. Between all neighboring species there are impassable, discrete chasms. The direct reason, therefore, why one cell stops in completion at any given vegetable stage, another at a certain animal stage, is that its producing parent was that vegetable or that animal. Now, going back to the first individual of each kind, which had no determining parent like itself, the theory of the gradually ameliorating development of one species out of the next below it is one mode of solving the problem. Another mode more satisfactory at least to theologians and their allies is to conclude that God, the Divine Force, by whom the life of the universe is given, made the world after an ideal plan, including a systematic arrangement of all the possible modifications. This plan was in his thought, in the unity of all its parts, from the beginning; and the animate creation is the execution of its diagrams in organic life. Instead of the lineal extraction of the complicated scheme out of one cell, there has been, from epoch to epoch, the simultaneous production of all included in one of its sections. The Creator, at his chosen times, calling into existence a multitude of cells, gave each one the amount and type of organic force which would carry it to the destined grade and form. In this manner may have originated, at the same time, the first sparrow, the first horse, the first man, in short, a whole circle of congeners.
"The grassy clods now calved; now half appear'd
The tawny lion, pawing to get free
His hinder parts, then springs as broke from bonds,
And rampant shakes his brinded mane."
Each creature, therefore, would be distinct from others from the first. "Man, though rising from not man, came forth sharply defined." The races thus originated in their initiative representatives by the creative power of God, thenceforth possess in themselves the power, each one, in the generative act, to put its typical dynamic stamp upon the primordial cells of its immediate descendants. Adam, then, was a wild man, cast in favoring conditions of climate, endowed with the same faculties as now, only not in so high a degree. For, by his peculiar power of forming habits, accumulating experience, transmitting acquirements and tendencies, he has slowly risen to his present state with all its wealth of wisdom, arts, and comforts.
By either of these theories, that of Darwin, or that of Agassiz, man, the head of the great organic family of the earth, and it matters not at all whether there were only one Adam and Eve, or whether each separate race had its own Adams and Eves, not merely a solitary pair, but simultaneous hundreds, man, physically considered, is indistinguishably included in the creative plan under the same laws and forces, and visibly subject to the same destination, as the lower animals. He starts with a cell as they do, grows to maturity by assimilative organization and endowing transformation of foreign nutriment as they do, his life is a continuous process of waste and repair of tissues as theirs is, and there is, from the scientific point of view, no conceivable reason why he should not be subject to physical death as they are. They have always been subject to death, which, therefore, is an aboriginal constituent of the Creative plan. It has been estimated, upon data furnished by scientific observation, that since the appearance of organic life on earth, millions of years ago, animals enough have died to cover all the lands of the globe with their bones to the height of three miles. Consequently, the historic commencement of death is not to be found in the sin of man. We shall discover it as a necessity in the first organic cell that was ever formed.
The spherule of force which is the primitive basis of a cell spends itself in the discharge of its work. In other words, "the amount of vital action which can be performed by each living cell has a definite limit." When that limit is reached, the exhausted cell is dead. To state the fact differently: no function can be performed without "the disintegration of a certain amount of tissue, whose components are then removed as effete by the excretory processes." This final expenditure on the part of a cell of its modification of force is the act of molecular death, the germinal essence of all decay. That this organic law should rule in every living structure is a necessity inherent in the actual conditions of the creation. And wherever we look in the realm of physical man, even "from the red outline of beginning Adam" to the amorphous adipocere of the last corpse when fate's black curtain falls on our race, we shall discern death. For death is the other side of life. Life and death are the two hands with which the organic power works.
The threescore simple elements known to chemists die, that is, surrender their peculiar powers and properties, and enter into new combinations to produce and support higher forms of life. Otherwise these inorganic elemental wastes would be all that the material universe could show.
The simple plant consists of single cells, which, in its development, give up their independent life for the production of a more exalted vegetable form. The formation of a perfectly organized plant is made possible only through the continuous dying and replacement of its cells. Similarly, in the development of an animal, the constituent cells die for the good of the whole creature; and the more perfect the animal the greater the subordination of the parts. The cells of the human body are incessantly dying, being borne off and replaced. The epidermis or scarf skin is made of millions of insensible scales, consisting of former cells which have died in order with their dead bodies to build this guardian wall around the tender inner parts. Thus, death, operating within the individual, seen in the light of natural science, is a necessity, is purely a form of self surrendering beneficence, is, indeed, but a hidden and indirect process and completion of life.
And is not the death of the total organism just as needful, just as benignant, as the death of the component atoms? Is it not the same law, still expressing the same meaning? The chemicalelements wherein individuality is wanting, as Wagner says, die that vegetable bodies may live. Individual vegetable bodies die that new individuals of the species may live, and that they may supply the conditions for animals to live. The individual beast dies that other individuals of his species may live, and also for the good of man. The plant lives by the elements and by other plants: the animal lives by the elements, by the plants, and by other animals: man lives and reigns by the service of the elements, of the plants, and of the animals. The individual man dies if we may trust the law of analogy for the good of his species, and that he may furnish the conditions for the development of a higher life elsewhere. It is quite obvious that, if individuals did not die, new individuals could not live, because there would not be room. It is also equally evident that, if individuals did not die, they could never have any other life than the present. The foregoing considerations, fathomed and appreciated, transform the institution of death from caprice and punishment into necessity and benignity. In the timid sentimentalist's view, death is horrible. Nature unrolls the chart of organic existence, a convulsed and lurid list of murderers, from the spider in the window to the tiger in the jungle, from the shark at the bottom of the sea to the eagle against the floor of the sky. As the perfumed fop, in an interval of reflection, gazes at the spectacle through his dainty eyeglass, the prospect swims in blood and glares with the ghastly phosphorus of corruption, and he shudders with sickness. In the philosophical naturalist's view, the dying panorama is wholly different. Carnivorous violence prevents more pain than it inflicts; the wedded laws of life and death wear the solemn beauty and wield the merciful functions of God; all is balanced and ameliorating; above the slaughterous struggle safely soar the dove and the rainbow; out of the charnel blooms the rose to which the nightingale sings love; nor is there poison which helps not health, nor destruction which supplies not creation with nutriment for greater good and joy.
By painting such pictures as that of a woman with "Sin" written on her forehead in great glaring letters, giving to Death a globe entwined by a serpent, or that of Death as a skeleton, waving a black banner over the world and sounding through a trumpet, "Woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth!" by interpreting the great event as punishment instead of fulfilment, extermination instead of transition, men have elaborated, in the faith of their imaginations, a melodramatic death which nature never made. Truly, to the capable observer, death bears the double aspect of necessity and benignity: necessity, because it is an ultimate fact, as the material world is made, that, since organic action implies expenditure of force, the modicum of force given to any physical organization must finally be spent; benignity, because a bodily immortality on earth would both prevent all the happiness of perpetually rising millions and be an unspeakable curse upon its possessors.
The benevolence of death appears from this fact, that it boundlessly multiplies the numbers who can enjoy the prerogatives of life. It calls up ever fresh generations, with wondering eyes and eager appetites, to the perennial banquet of existence. Had Adam not sinned and been expelled from Paradise, some of the Christian Fathers thought, the fixed number of saints foreseen by God would have been reached and then no more would have been born.
Such would have been the necessity, there being no death. But, by the removal of one company as they grow tired and sated, room is made for a new company to approach and enjoy the ever renewing spectacle and feast of the world. Thus all the delightful boons life has, instead of being cooped within a little stale circle, are ceaselessly diffused and increased. Vivacious claimants advance, see what is to be seen, partake of what is furnished, are satisfied, and retire; and their places are immediately taken by hungry successors. Thus the torch of life is passed briskly, with picturesque and stimulating effect, along the manifold race of running ages, instead of smouldering stagnantly forever in the moveless grasp of one. The amount of enjoyment, the quantity of conscious experience, gained from any given exhibition by a million persons to each of whom it is successively shown for one hour, is, beyond all question, immensely greater and keener than one person could have from it in a million hours. The generations of men seem like fire flies glittering down the dark lane of History; but each swarm had its happy turn, fulfilled its hour, and rightfully gave way to its followers. The disinterested beneficence of the Creator ordains that the same plants, insects, men, shall not unsurrenderingly monopolize and stop the bliss of breath. Death is the echo of the voice of love reverberated from the limit of life.
The cumulative fund of human experience, the sensitive affiliating line of history, like a cerebral cord of personal identity traversing the centuries, renders a continual succession of generations equivalent to the endless existence of one generation; but with this mighty difference, that it preserves all the edge and spice of novelty. For consider what would be the result if death were abolished and men endowed with an earthly immortality. At first they might rejoice, and think their last, dreadest enemy destroyed. But what a mistake! In the first place, since none are to be removed from the earth, of course none must come into it. The space and material are all wanted by those now in possession. All are soon mature men and women, not another infant ever to hang upon a mother's breast or be lifted in a father's arms.
All the prattling music, fond cares, yearning love, and gushing joys and hopes associated with the rearing of children, gone! What a stupendous fragment is stricken from the fabric of those enriching satisfactions which give life its truest value and its purest charm! Ages roll on. They see the same everlasting faces, confront the same returning phenomena, engage in the same worn out exercises, or lounge idly in the unchangeable conditions which bear no stimulant which they have not exhausted. Thousands of years pass. They have drunk every attainable spring of knowledge dry. Not a prize stirs a pulse. All pleasures, permutated till ingenuity is baffled, disgust them. No terror startles them. No possible experiment remains untried; nor is there any unsounded fortune left. No dim marvels and boundless hopes beckon them with resistless lures into the future. They have no future. One everlasting now is their all. At last the incessant repetition of identical phenomena, the unmitigated sameness of things, the eternal monotony of affairs, become unutterably burdensome and horrible. Full of loathing and immeasurable fatigue, a weariness like the weight of a universe oppresses them; and what would they not give for a change! any thing to break the nightmare spell of ennui, to fling off the dateless flesh, to die, to pass into some unguessed realm, to lie down and sleep forever: it would be the infinite boon!
Take away from man all that is dependent on, or interlinked with, the appointment of death, and it would make such fundamental alterations of his constitution and relations that he would no longer be man. It would leave us an almost wholly different race. If it is a divine boon that men should be, then death is a good to us; for it enables us to be men. Without it there would neither be husband and wife, nor parent and child, nor family hearth and altar; nor, indeed, would hardly any thing be as it is now. The existent phenomena of nature and the soul would comprise all. And when the jaded individual, having mastered and exhausted this finite sum, looked in vain for any thing new or further, the world would be a hateful dungeon to him, and life an awful doom; and how gladly he would give all that lies beneath the sun's golden round and top of sovereignty to migrate into some untried region and state of being, or even to renounce existence altogether and lie down forever in the attractive slumber of the grave! Without death, mankind would undergo the fate of Sisyphus, no future, and in the present the oppression of an intolerable task with an aching vacuum of motive. The certainty and the mystery of death create the stimulus and the romance of life. Give the human race an earthly immortality, and you exclude them from every thing greater and diviner than the earth affords. Who could consent to that? Take away death, and a brazen wall girds in our narrow life, against which, if we remained men, we should dash and chafe in the climax of our miserable longing, as the caged lion or eagle beats against his bars.
The gift of an earthly immortality conferred on a single person a boon which thoughtless myriads would clasp with frantic triumph would prove, perhaps, a still more fearful curse than if distributed over the whole species.
Retaining his human affections, how excruciating and remediless his grief must be, to be so cut off from all equal community of experience and destiny with mankind, to see all whom he loves, generation after generation, fading away, leaving him alone, to form new ties again to be dissolved, to watch his beloved ones growing old and infirm, while he stands without a change! His love would be left, in agony of melancholy grandeur, "a solitary angel hovering over a universe of tombs" on the tremulous wings of memory and grief, those wings incapacitated, by his madly coveted prerogative of deathlessness, ever to move from above the sad rows of funereal urns. Zanoni, in Bulwer's magnificent conception, says to Viola, "The flower gives perfume to the rock on whose breast it grows. A little while, and the flower is dead; but the rock still endures, the snow at its breast, the sunshine on its summit." A deathless individual in a world of the dying, joined with them by ever bereaved affections, would be the wretchedest creature conceivable. As no man ever yet prayed for any thing he would pray to be released, to embrace dear objects in his arms and float away with them to heaven, or even to lie down with them in the kind embrace of mother earth. And if he had no affections, but lived a stoic existence, exempt from every sympathy, in impassive solitude, he could not be happy, he would not be man: he must be an intellectual marble of thought or a monumental mystery of woe.
Death, therefore, is benignity. When men wish there were no such appointed event, they are deceived, and know not what they wish. Literature furnishes a strange and profound, though wholly unintentional, confirmation of this view. Every form in which literary genius has set forth the conception of an earthly immortality represents it as an evil. This is true even down to Swift's painful account of the Struldbrugs in the island of Laputa. The legend of the Wandering Jew, one of the most marvellous products of the human mind in imaginative literature, is terrific with its blazoned revelation of the contents of an endless life on earth. This story has been embodied, with great variety of form and motive, in more than a hundred works. Every one is, without the writer's intention, a disguised sermon of gigantic force on the benignity of death. As in classic fable poor Tithon became immortal in the dawning arms of Eos only to lead a shrivelled, joyless, repulsive existence; and the fair young witch of Cuma had ample cause to regret that ever Apollo granted her request for as many years as she held grains of dust in her hand; and as all tales of successful alchemists or Rosicrucians concur in depicting the result to be utter disappointment and revulsion from the accursed prize; we may take it as evidence of a spontaneous conviction in the depths of human nature a conviction sure to be brought out whenever the attempt is made to describe in life an opposite thought that death is benign for man as he is constituted and related on earth. The voice of human nature speaks truth through the lips of Cicero, saying, at the close of his essay on Old Age, "Quodsi non sumus immortales futuri, tamen exstingui homini suo tempore optabile est."
In a conversation at the house of Sappho, a discussion once arose upon the question whether death was a blessing or an evil. Some maintained, the former alternative; but Sappho victoriously closed the debate by saying, If it were a blessing to die, the immortal gods would experience it. The gods live forever: therefore, death is an evil. The reasoning was plausible and brilliant. Yet its sophistry is complete. To men, conditioned as they are in this world, death may be the greatest blessing; while to the gods, conditioned so differently, it may have no similar application.
Because an earthly eternity in the flesh would be a frightful calamity, is no reason why a heavenly eternity in the spirit would be other than a blissful inheritance.
Thus the remonstrance which may be fallaciously based on some of the foregoing considerations namely, that they would equally make it appear that the immortality of man in any condition would be undesirable is met. A conclusion drawn from the facts of the present scene of things, of course, will not apply to a scene inconceivably different. Those whose only bodies are their minds may be fetterless, happy, leading a wondrous life, beyond our deepest dream and farthest fancy, and eternally free from trouble or satiety.
Death is to us, while we live, what we think it to be. If we confront it with analytic and defiant eye, it is that nothing which ever ceases in beginning to be. If, letting the superstitious senses tyrannize over us and cow our better part of man, we crouch before the imagination of it, it assumes the shape of the skeleton monarch who takes the world for his empire, the electric fluid for his chariot, and time for his sceptre. In the contemplation of death, hitherto, fancy inspired by fear has been by far too much the prominent faculty and impulse. The literature of the subject is usually ghastly, appalling, and absurd, with point of view varying from that of the credulous Hindu, personifying death as a monster with a million mouths devouring all creatures and licking them in his flaming lips as a fire devours the moths or as the sea swallows the torrents, to that of the atheistic German dreamer, who converts nature into an immeasurable corpse worked by galvanic forces, and that of the bold French philosopher, Carnot, whose speculations have led to the theory that the sun will finally expend all its heat, and constellated life cease, as the solar system hangs, like a dead orrery, ashy and spectral, the ghost of what it was. So the extravagant author of Festus says,
"God tore the glory from the sun's broad brow And flung the flaming scalp away."
The subject should be viewed by the unclouded intellect, guided by serene faith, in the light of scientific knowledge. Then death is revealed, first, as an organic necessity in the primordial life cell; secondly, as the cessation of a given form of life in its completion; thirdly, as a benignant law, an expression of the Creator's love; fourthly, as the inaugurating condition of another form of life. What we are to refer to sin is all the seeming lawlessness and untimeliness of death. Had not men sinned, all would reach a good age and pass away without suffering. Death is benignant necessity; the irregularity and pain associated with it are an inherited punishment. Finally, it is a condition of improvement in life. Death is the incessant touch with which the artist, Nature, is bringing her works to perfection.
Physical death is experienced by man in common with the brute. Upon grounds of physiology there is no greater evidence for man's Spiritual survival through that overshadowed crisis than there is for the brute's. And on grounds of sentiment man ought not to shrink from sharing his open future with these mute comrades. Des Cartes and Malebranche taught that animals are mere machines, without souls, worked by God's arbitrary power. Swedenborg held that "the souls of brutes are extinguished with their bodies."
Leibnitz, by his doctrine of eternal monads, sustains the immortality of all creatures.
Coleridge defended the same idea. Agassiz, with much power and beauty, advocates the thought that animals as well as men have a future life. The old traditions affirm that at least four beasts have been translated to heaven; namely, the ass that spoke to Balaam, the white foal that Christ rode into Jerusalem, the steed Borak that bore Mohammed on his famous night journey, and the dog that wakened the Seven Sleepers. To recognise, as Goethe did, brothers in the green wood and in the teeming air, to sympathize with all lower forms of life, and hope for them an open range of limitless possibilities in the hospitable home of God, is surely more becoming to a philosopher, a poet, or a Christian, than that careless scorn which commonly excludes them from regard and contemptuously leaves them to annihilation. This subject has been genially treated by Richard Dean in his "Essay on the Future Life of Brutes."
But on moral and psychological grounds the distinction is vast between the dying man and the dying brute. Bretschneider, in a beautiful sermon on this point, specifies four particulars. Man foresees and provides for his death: the brute does not. Man dies with unrecompensed merit and guilt: the brute does not. Man dies with faculties and powers fitted for a more perfect state of existence: the brute does not. Man dies with the expectation of another life: the brute does not. Three contrasts may be added to these. First, man desires to die amidst his fellows: the brute creeps away by himself, to die in solitude. Secondly, man inters his dead with burial rites, rears a memorial over them, cherishes recollections of them which often change his subsequent character: but who ever heard of a deer watching over an expiring comrade, a deer funeral winding along the green glades of the forest? The barrows of Norway, the mounds of Yucatan, the mummy pits of Memphis, the rural cemeteries of our own day, speak the human thoughts of sympathetic reverence and posthumous survival, typical of something superior to dust. Thirdly, man often makes death an active instead of a passive experience, his will as it is his fate, a victory instead of a defeat.21 As Mirabeau sank towards his end, he ordered them to pour perfumes and roses on him, and to bring music; and so, with the air of a haughty conqueror, amidst the volcanic smoke and thunder of reeling France, his giant spirit went forth. The patriot is proud to lay his body a sacrifice on the altar of his country's weal. The philanthropist rejoices to spend himself without pay in a noble cause, to offer up his life in the service of his fellow men. Thousands of generous students have given their lives to science and clasped death amidst their trophied achievements. Who can count the confessors who have thought it bliss and glory to be martyrs for truth and God? Creatures capable of such deeds must inherit eternity. Their transcendent souls step from their rejected mansions through the blue gateway of the air to the lucid palace of the stars. Any meaner allotment would be discordant and unbecoming their rank.
Contemplations like these exorcise the spectre host of the brain and quell the horrid brood of fear. The noble purpose of self sacrifice enables us to smile upon the grave, "as some sweet clarion's breath stirs the soldier's scorn of danger."
Death parts with its false frightfulness, puts on its true beauty, and becomes at once the evening star of memory and the morning star of hope, the Hesper of the sinking flesh, the Phosphor of the rising soul. Let the night come, then: it shall be welcome. And, as we gird our loins to enter the ancient mystery, we will exclaim, with vanishing voice, to those we leave behind,
"Though I stoop Into a dark tremendous sea of cloud, It is but for a time I press God's lamp Close to my breast: its splendor, soon or late, Will pierce the gloom: I shall emerge somewhere."