William Rounseville Alger.

The solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life online

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it, and slay our deadly foes, lust and vanity, with the
bright weapons of the saint, renunciation and faith.

Opinion is the rate of things,
By which our peace doth flow ;
We have a better fate than kings,
If we but think' it so.

Make we then frequent withdrawals into meditative lone-
liness and silence. And with reference to this let us re-
member what Marcus Antoninus so well says : " Nowhere
either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does


a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he
has within him such thoughts that by looking into them
he is immediately in perfect tranquillity. Constantly then,
give to thyself this retreat, and renew thyself; and let
thy principles be brief and fundamental, which, as soon
as thou shalt recur to them, will be sufficient to cleanse
the soul completely, and to send thee back free from all
discontent with the things to which thou returnest."

There is, therefore, for the tonic discipline or the re-
pose of solitude, no need of going to -any remote hermit-
age. The game of solitaire may be played as effectually
in the drawing-room or on the sidewalk as in cell or

There needs no guards in front and rear to keep the crowd away ;
Superior height of life and soul will hold them all at bay.

One thought, one recollection, one emotion, one sigh,
and you may be as far from the comrades who are talking
and laughing around you, as though mountain-ranges in-
tervened or oceans rolled between. In any company let
me but think, Now, soft and faint, the starlight is falling
along the shattered colonnades of Karnac, and I am
alone. Let me glance upward where the ghostly moon is
swimming through the noontide air, and I am alone.
Let fancy go forth to the snow-laden flanks of the Alps,
where the sombre pine-ranks are waving like hearse-
plumes over the corse of nature, and I am alone. Let
a dream of heaven rise in imagination, a glimpse of the
faces of the unforgotten dead pass before the mental eye,
a sense of the presence of God rise into consciousness,
and, it matters not where the place is or how many noisy
claimants press around, I am instantly and unutterably

Even if we wish it not we must sometimes be alone.
It is our duty to see to it that we are prepared to be
alone profitably and cheerfully, without weariness and
without fear. The difference in human solitudes is im-
mense. The solitude was pleasing which Archimedes
knew, so absorbingly occupied with his mathematical
problems as to be unconscious of the capture of his Syra-


cuse, and to be slain by the Roman soldiers sooner than
forsake his fascinating work. But how painful, to a man
of his sensitive warmth, was the solitude of the brave and
generous Canning in his premiership at the close of his
career, too proudly refined for democratic intimacies,
cast off by his Tory associates on account of his liberal
statesmanship, idolized by thousands who could not per-
sonally approach him, pitilessly persecuted by his sur-
rounding enemies, stung at every pore, at once slowly
bleeding and freezing to death on the height of his
power. The loneliness felt by the subject of morbid
superstition and terror resembles the landscape in the
gloomy gorges of the Grand Chartreuse ; while the lone-
liness felt by the subject of healthy faith and awe before
the unknown realities of being, resembles the scene on
the white roof of the Milan Cathedral, when some visitor,
climbing thither by moonlight and gazing on the forest
of statues, feels as though a flight of angels had alighted
there and been struck to marble. We cannot always live
in public. There are secrets and moments we can never
share. We should be familiar with the necessity, and
make it grateful. We should cultivate in thought its
serene, contentful aspects, and guard against its oppres
sive, fearful aspects. The gifted man, isolated in pro-
portion to his superiority, if needing sympathy, feels,
Schopenhauer strikingly says, as though men had for
saken him ; if self-sufficing, as though he had succeeded
in running away from them. What a contrast of misery
and blessedness in the states of these two ! Who is it
that sits on the world as lightly as a gull on the ocean,
except he who has learned by solitary thought to detach
his affections from the prides and vanities of society, and
often to lose himself in the fruition of a transcendent
faith ? To be separated by ascetic superstition is to
know the loneliness of Arsenius, who, after being tutor
to the Emperor Arcadius, went into the desert, and for
fifty years made his life one long solitary prayer. To be
separated by the remorseful memory of crime, is to know
the loneliness of Milo, when caught by the fingers in the
rebounding oak he would split, and left as a prey to the


wild beasts. To be separated by absorption in some
sweet care, is to know the loneliness of Izaak Walton
trouting in a secluded glen. To the guilty and debased
soul there may come a loneliness like the solitude of a
volcanic peak, full of boiling lava and smoke. To the
virtuous and trustful soul there may come a loneliness
like the solitude of a spring in the desert, where, all night
long, the wild children of nature successively slake their
thirst ; the fawn and the panther, the lion and the ele-
phant, and the moon comes there, sees her fair face,
and departs smiling.

Die away, then, vain murmur of tongues ! Retreat,
hollow hum of toils and cares ! Fade out, cold proces-
sion of alien faces ! Begone, fair seductions, that excite,
then deceive and desert your victim ! Cease to vex any
more this poor brain and heart, ye restless solicitations to
things that can never suffice, and that perish so soon 1
Disappear all, and leave me awhile alone, with my soul
and. nature, my destiny and my God 1






ABOUT six centuries before the beginning of the Chris-
tion era, in Kapilavastu, a royal city of India, the Prince
Gotama, or Sakya Muni, was born in the palace of King
Suddhodarna, lord paramount of the Aryan race. Heir
to the regal glories of the house of the sun, brought up in
a powerful and splendid court, amidst the utmost richness
and refinement of poetic and metaphysical culture, he
was profusely supplied with all that could gratify the
senses or develop the mind. He was endowed with
surpassing personal beauty and with the noblest traits of
character. At an early age he showed such extreme
thoughtfulness and sympathy that his teachers foretold
his destiny to become a recluse. The king took every
precaution to prevent this catastrophe. But in vain.
Fate would be fulfilled.

One day, while riding out, he saw a decrepit old man,
half bent to the earth, tottering along with great difficulty.
Learning, on inquiry, that all men who lived to a great
age were subject to these infirmities, the prince sorrow-
fully meditated for a long time. After an interval he met
a beggar suffering from a loathsome disease. This spec-
tacle of sores and pains brought his former reflections
back in double intensity. And when, a few months later,
he happened to behold a dead body in the last stages of
decay, and was told that this was the unavoidable end of
all men, he was horrified at the evils of existence. The
keenest sense of the vanity of worldly pleasure and mag-
nificence took possession of him. Melancholy contem-
plations on the ghastly circle of birth, growth, decline,


disease, death, corruption, constantly occupied his soul.
But at length, in one of his excursions beyond the palace,
he saw a hermit, becomingly clad in a simple robe, walk-
ing cheerfully along the road with a staff and almsdish,
in perfect health, with a serene and smiling face. The
prince asked who this was. And being told that it was a
recluse, who by religious withdrawal and meditation had
freed himself from the cares and miseries of ordinary
mortals, he at once matured his previous ruminations in
an indomitable resolution to imitate the example thus set,
detach himself from bondage to the disgusts of human
existence which the gorgeous masks of his station had
vainly hidden, and try to discover the means of eternally
delivering himself and all men.

With transcendent strength of self-denial he fulfilled
his purpose on the very day of the birth of his first child,
when the whole palace and city were ringing with festiv-
ities. Pausing on the threshold of the room where the
sleeping mother and babe lay in their loveliness, he gazed
on them a moment, then turned away, forsook without a
sigh the most seductive prizes of the world, and, accom-
panied by a single servant, whom he soon dismissed,
started for a desolate forest, far from all the attractions
and distractions of his former experience. What a pic-
ture it is of spiritual prowess, a peerless personality, a
divine consecration, and an inexpressible mental lone-
liness, the musing Gotama, only twenty-nine years old,
in the fragrant bloom of his royalty, after the three
sad sights of helpless age, repulsive sickness, and putres-
cent death, and the pleasant sight of the happy ascetic,
stealing away from queen and child and palace, ex-
changing the diadem and golden robe for the alms-bowl
and clout, and sitting down under the bo-tree in the deep
woods to think out the doctrine of salvation !

For six long years Gotama persevered, in strict seclu-
sion from the world, in the practice of all known austet-
ities for reducing the flesh to its lowest influence, and arts
for raising the mind to its grandest power, constantly
striving to vanquish every selfish desire, every earthly at-
tachment, and achieve a knowledge of truth. Astounding


descriptions are given of the penances he underwent, the
agonies he endured, the temptations he withstood, the
repeated failures he experienced before his final victory.
His figure, the authority he acquired, and the part he
played in subsequent history became so prodigious, and
the imaginative fertility and credulity of the Asiatic races
were so teeming and unchecked, that it would have been
unnatural if he had not been surrounded with a glittering
cloud of supernatural attributes and feats, if he had not
been obscured under masses of fictitious marvels. The
deifying wonder that has wrought on the biography of
Jesus, the collective miracles ascribed to him, are the
merest trifle in comparison with the overwhelming powers
attributed to Buddha. One consequence is a common
doubt whether there really ever was such a person. But
the doubt is not valid. The soundest historical criticism
must admit that the prince and sage, Gotama Buddha,
once lived, and that we possess, enveloped in stupendous
perversions and exaggerations, a trustworthy knowledge
of his life, character, doctrine, and influence. Stripping
off the mythical accretion, we discern, under the distor-
tions of the miraculous, the unmistakable indications of
the natural and the true. Behind the grotesque exagger-
ations of the legendary monstrosity, we trace the affecting
features of a genius and hero of the most exalted order.

Casting away the sceptre and laurel, retreating into the
solitude of the wilderness, year after year Gotama main-
tained his pursuit of a perfect insight and emancipation,
determined never to falter till he had solved the problem
of existence. He had grown up in a country and age
where innumerable rival sects, both in philosophy and
religion, lived side by side, with universal tolerance, but
engaged in keen debate. Hindu faith and metaphysics,
represented by masters whose comprehensiveness and
subtility of thinking have scarcely been surpassed, in-
cluded every form of speculative opinion, both sceptical
and dogmatic, dualistic and monistic, polytheism, mon-
otheism, atheism, pantheism, sensualism, subjective ideal-
ism, objective idealism, absolute idealism, nihilism. No
fineness, no stretch, no complexity of dialectics was un-


known to the Brahmanic sages. Gotama went over these
varieties of thought with consummate vigor and patience.
He analyzed the nature of the soul and its constituent
faculties with exhaustive profundity and acumen, fearless-
ly scrutinizing the powers and experiences of human
nature, following every clew of logic and of intuition to
its furthest reach. He canvassed the dogmatic beliefs
and religious rites of the Brahmans with startling audaci-
ty. Long baffled, at variance in his own thought, dissat-
isfied and unsettled, worn to a skeleton with incessant
thinking and privation, at last the hour of triumph broke,
the end of his tremendous toils was accomplished, he be-
lieved he had attained the sum of truth, free from admix-
ture of error. He was thirty-five years of age, when,
called Buddha, the Awakened, the Illumined, wiser
than the wisest, higher than the highest, he began to
teach his system for the salvation of all living creatures
from the miseries of existence.

While the greatest teachers and leaders of our race are
most the fathers of the future, they are also most the sons
of the past. No one, however originative, can be inde-
pendent of his educational inheritance. Freely as Gota-
ma rejected or modified established views, and added
new ones, the foundation and motive of his system were
the same as those of the system in vogue when he arose.
From a combination of causes one predominant style of
thought and feeling had prevailed in India for ages.
The stagnant despotism of the government, the fixed
cruelty of the institution of caste, the oppressive heat
and languor of the climate, the weary monotony of usages,
the tenacious, passionate sensibility of the people, the
rich brooding meditativeness of the Hindu mind, con-
spired to produce an intense feeling at once of the bur-
dens of life and of the profound unreality of sensible
objects. The habit of thinking all natural phenomena
mere dreams and illusions, all existence an odious pen-
ance, nourished for many generations, had taken deep
root and secured vivid development in the whole Hindu
race. No other nation was ever so priest-ridden, or ac-
cepted so besottedly the creed and ritual imposed on


them. They believed that the visible universe, filled with
created beings, from gods to insects, was a congeries of
deceptive appearances, in which all creatures were en-
tangled in a whirl of miseries. As soon as one died who
had not attained emancipation, he was born again in some
other form, to repeat the horrid routine. The supreme
sigh was to be freed from the chain of births and the
wheel of illusion. The means of this deliverance the
Brahmans monopolized in their own caste, with their ex-
clusive possession of the Veda and the Sacraments.
They taught that there was but one real Being ; every
other existence was an illusion, removable when the soul,
by adequate penance, worship, and meditation, came to
pierce the blurring veils of sense, and recover the lost
knowledge of the identity of its own true self with the
sole Being. All who had not this knowledge could only
practise the prescribed ceremonies, and accumulate merit,
until some fortunate link of the chain of transmigrations
should bring them within the priestly class. Nature,
therefore, was considered a torturing round of illusions,
through which all creatures whirled in the circuit of trans-
migrations, hopeless of escape save through the door of
the Brahmanic caste. This fearful monopoly the priestly
hierarchy had managed for many centuries with mon-
strous self-complacency and a crushing popular ceremo-
nial, using the key of knowledge for themselves alone,
seeking no converts in other castes, dispensing no re-
demptive light on other lands.

Gotama started from the same cardinal principles, but
with an abrupt difference of spirit and method. If the
system he constructed was more eclectic than original,
his wonderful moral sympathy and personality stamped it
with a startling freshness of form and novelty of power.
His four fundamental propositions were : There is sorrow^
Every lining creature feels it, Deliverance is desirable, Purt
knowledge is the only possible deliverance. He first diverged
into sharp contradiction with the Brahmans by flinging
away, as worthless and burdensome, their cumbrous cere-
monial law with its superstitious prayers, sacrifices and
austerities, and translating the substance of their abstruse


philosophy into a brief formula of salvation. Secondly,
he diverged from them in the purity and expansiveness
of his morality. His personal and didactic ethics were
as noble as have ever been exemplified. He placed in
the foreground of his system all the practical virtues, such
as justice, veracity, purity, benevolence, reverence. He
taught self-sacrifice in its highest form, and recommended
the practice of every virtue on disinterested principles.
When he had acquired his own deliverance, his mind
burned with the divinest pity for others, with tender and
heroic desires to redeem all from their sorrows. His was
the first missionary religion that ever appeared on earth.
Before him no religionist had ever dreamed of converting
a foreign people to his form of worship. Religion was
a family or national treasure scrupulously guarded from
strangers. Not even the lowest grade of Hindus, the
Sudras, would admit a foreigner into its ranks. But
this great reformer, with an unequalled boldness of gen-
erosity, commanded his disciples to traverse the earth
with the free offer of salvation to all. He was inspired
by an unprecedented feeling of brotherly sympathy for
the whole race. The earliest teacher of whom there is
proof that he extended the sense of duty from the house-
hold, the village, the tribe, the nation, over all castes and
outcasts, to the widest circle of mankind, is Gotama
Buddha. It is his imperishable honor to be the first man
historically known to have distinctly propounded the idea
of humanity. Six centuries afterward Jesus conceived
that idea with still deeper inspiration, and preached it
with still greater effect. But it is wonderful that Buddha
should have clearly declared it so long before, and the
world will always owe him a debt of revering gratitude
for the fruits it has borne in the followers of his faith.

While Gotama agreed with the Brahmans that the world
was a prison and lazar-house, life an evil, deliverance a
good, and pure knowledge the means of deliverance, his
theory of what that pure knowledge was stood in extreme
opposition to theirs. They taught that by penance,
prayer, sacrifice, and reflection, man might attain the
perception of the one divine Reality, and through that


perception extricate himself from the time-medley of
change and illusion, break the bond of metempsychosis,
and, absorbed in the Godhead, be born no more. Gota-
ma taught that by the practice of disinterested virtue and
indomitable thought man might detach himself from all
desire, and so neutralize the attractions that hold him in
this wretched sphere as to fly away into a state of uncon-
ditional exemption. He believed strictly in no God, no
absorption, no transmigration, no real self. But he had
equivalents for all these : he recognized the phenomena
which the Brahmans had generalized under these terms,
only he sought by a sharper analysis and a wider intuition
to give a sounder explanation of them. Like Hume,
Spinoza, and other subtle masters of thinking, Buddha
fancied he saw the delusiveness of all selfhood, saw that
the soul is no substantive unit, but merely a current of
states, its sole identity consisting of the accumulated mass
of associations in experience, the organic conditions of
memory. Accordingly, when the organism goes to pieces
in death the soul is extinct, as a harmonious consensus
ceases with the extermination of the related parts. The
attainment of this knowledge, that the soul is a process,
closing with death, and not a substance, capable of re-
peated births and lives, is the first great step in Gotama's
doctrine of salvation. This is the essence of his meta-
physics, which he affirms, illustrates, and enforces without

But he could not wholly throw off the influence of the
habits of thought embedded in the Hindu mind by thou-
sands of years of intensely repeated meditations. The
concentrated substance of these habits was intertwined
with the doctrine of transmigration. Gotama furnished
for the transmigrating soul which his remorseless analysis
destroyed, a substitute as plausible to the mental state of
his hearers as it is strange and incredible to us. He
maintained that when one died who had not achieved a
perfected insight and virtue, the desire that remained, the
love of finite things, the cleaving to existence, produced
another being endowed with the exact desert, good or bad,
left behind by the departed predecessor. Thus though


there is no surviving soul in man, yet the law of retribu-
tion holds over ; the fearful vortex of births is preserved
full, the detestable kaleidoscope of illusions is kept twink-
ling. He attributes a kind of individuality to the karma
of every being, the aggregate of his actions during his
existence, the sum of his merit and demerit. And this
karma, or collective moral worth of a man, when he dies,
is transferred intact to his successor. It is a striking
example of what was the almost invariable error of the
ancient metaphysicians, regarding an abstraction as an

Gotama saw that there could be no illusion without
some reality behind it to cause it. If the soul or self
regarded as an integral entity was an illusion, there must
be some force to sustain the process of life on which that
illusion rested. Now this force he interprets as a cleav-
ing to existence, a subtle desire to be and to feel. This
cleaving to existence is itself the result of ignorance. In
consequence of ignorance, there is an accumulation of
merit and demerit ; in consequence of merit and demerit,
consciousness is produced ; in consequence of conscious-
ness, the mental faculties and the body are produced ; in
consequence of the mind and the body, sensations are
produced ; in consequence of sensations, desire is pro-
duced ; in consequence of desire, attachment is produced ;
in consequence of attachment, birth is produced ; in con-
sequence of birth, grief, discontent, vexation, decay, and
death are produced. Thus originates the complete catena-
tion of evils. Whenever one of these constituents ceases
to be, the next in the series ceases to be, and the whole
combination of sorrow ends.

The method Buddha proposed for destroying the cleav-
ing to existence was by removing the ignorance which
caused it. This ignorance he would remove by destroy-
ing the self-love, the personal desires, the enslaving at-
tachments, which blind men to the two truths that all
finite being is essentially evil, a painful turmoil of changes,
and that eternal deliverance from it is the absolute good.
This fatal love of self, this profound clinging to things
he would overcome primarily, by revealing to m?n *he


phenomenal nature of the soul, that he is only a brief and
complicated process of states, the new individual to whom
his karma is to be transferred being an utterly separate
person with no remembrance of him whatever; and sec-
ondarily, by the most persevering emphasis and con-
templation of all the disgusts and horrors of experience.
In this manner he aimed to detach man from false delights,
wean him from the folly of selfish affection, lead him to
lose himself in an infinite surrender and repose, cause him
in disinterested sympathy for others to labor to break the
unhappy series of existences, dissolve the dark combination
of woes, and unpeople the worlds by peopling Nirwa"na.

The meaning of this last word, Nirwa"na, is the key of
Buddhism, alike in its own essence and in its distinction
from Brahmanism and from Christianity. The attainment
of Nirwdna is regarded as the fulfilment of the highest
possible destiny of man. The highest possible destiny of
man, to the mind of the Brahman, is the identification of
the self of the seer with the Soul of the Universe. To
the Christian it is the immortal blessedness of the per-
sonal soul in a beatific world, the translation of the con-
scious individual to the society of the redeemed and the

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 15 of 35)