CELT document E890000-004

The Two Civilisations

Patrick Augustine Sheehan


The Two Civilisations


There is a poet in America named Walt Whitman, considered inspired by his friends, half insane by his enemies, and he has written a certain chaunt, called Salut au monde, in which he takes a most comprehensive, and at the same time, minute view of the world, and all its wonders of men, and salutes all at the same time as his brothers. I often wonder what he would feel, could he stand on the quays of Queenstown and see the floating cities that glide day after day into our port, and as silently depart, each with its freight of humanity gathered from every part of the civilised and even uncivilised world. To any reflective mind it is a strange and suggestive sight. What the mind of the poet conceived is brought directly under our eyes. Men of all nations under heaven are gathered together in those huge black vessels that steal into our harbours every morning, and as silently steal away at mid-day, or in the evening; and many of those visitors of ours represent not only their own individuality, but are the originators of ideas which are revolutionising the world—the high priests of new philosophical systems—the centres towards which thousands, ay, even millions, are looking, very often in vain, for inspiration and light. In fact, if we had time or taste for these things, our transatlantic steamers would give us a perfect panorama of all the leaders of thought in every department of science, art, philosophy, and even religion.

I will, therefore, take you, dear reader, in imagination on the deck of one of these ocean steamers; and on a little group of men we will make a brief meditation.

We move up in the tender and attach ourselves to the mighty ship which rises dark and gloomy from the waters, its black mass only broken by the small circular lights that speak suggestively of the terrible buffeting and drenching the good ship will have to bear before she anchors at her destination. And suddenly a sight breaks upon us which we cannot soon forget. For, as we touch the vessel, its dark profile is broken by the light of a thousand human faces, on each of which is written that strange, anxious look which you notice in persons who are leaving accustomed modes of life,  p.294 and embarking, on new, and perhaps perilous enterprises. And what a medley! What strange pranks Mother Nature plays with “the human face divine!” What mighty ingenuity she shows in moulding and casting the countenances of men, so that there is no mistaking one individual for another! Lean and hungry Italian faces, from which centuries of poverty have beaten out the grand old Roman type of feature; calm and heavy Teutonic faces that speak of easy lives and plenty of lager beer; the high and angular Norwegian face that has been buffetted and withered by the storms which sweep up the fiords and gulfs of their rugged coasts; here the face of an Armenian, who stood a month ago on the most sacred soil that feet ever pressed; and here the olive features and white burnous of the Arab, who was baked a few weeks ago under the pyramids, and is now shivering in the cold east wind that is churning the waters into yellow foam. And here side by side are the two races, whom a strange destiny has linked together but whom Fate has kept sundered apart as widely as pole from pole—the tall and muscular Saxon, and the little, active, nervous form of the black-eyed and black-haired Celt. And here, too, are their descendants—the mixed race of Americans, who have inherited all the thoughtfulness of the Saxon and all the brightness of the Celt, and whose pale features and eager eyes speak the national character—bright, alert, and speculative.

But we are moving. You can see the ridges fall away in white foam from the keen prow of the ship, as the screw churns and tosses the waters on the stern. “Cast off” comes from the bridge high over our heads; and whilst the noble vessel moves forward in silent dignity on her course, the little tender sheers off at an angle to make the circuit homewards. And now I become suddenly aware that whilst I am soliloquizing, I am in the midst of many tragedies, and probably, excepting the captain and the crew, the most unconcerned spectator on board. All around are very sad faces, filled with a yearning look towards the land they are leaving. Even the blue-black eyes of the merry Celt are filmed and clouded as they look for the last time, perhaps, on the green hills and purple mountains of Inisfail. Here is a lady whose society training in the most rigid conventionalism cannot withal prevent her hands from trembling, and her eyes from growing red with weeping. And here is a stalwart athlete trying to look supremely indifferent, but I notice some strange moisture gathering under his  p.295 eyelids; and I know, if I spoke to him, his voice would quiver and break in his effort to reply. But it is no time now for useless regrets. The vessel of their fortunes and hopes is already far upon the waters. The grim shadows of Carlisle fort frown upon her; and now she glides before the sunny walls of the lighthouse, and now she turns her broadside to the bay. She is looking straight to the west, walking the waters towards the Empire Republic, the mother of many nations. A thousand hearts are pulsing beneath her flag—each with its marvellous history of the past, its rich, beautiful dreams of the future. The stars are not more lonely in their orbits than these human hearts—each with its secrets sealed to all eyes but God's. The great wings of mighty storms are winnowing and sweeping the Atlantic before them. Billows are rolling towards them from far latitudes. Yet not a single soul has a fear of reaching the promised land in safety. This little world—this microcosm on the waters—what is it but a type of humanity and the world? Or what is the world and humanity but a ship in the ocean of space?

However, it is not multitudes but individuals we have come to see—not races, but marked types and representatives of races—not the hoi polloi who fret their little hour upon the stage and sink into obscure graves, but the anakes andron—the kings of men, they who are stirring the great heart of the world with impulses that issue in healthy reform or unhealthy revolution. And fortunately there are a few of these chosen minds here amongst our passengers. Men who, from the dark recesses of laboratories and museums have strengthened a hundredfold the hands of their fellow-men, have annihilated distance on the globe, and tamed the terrible agents that stand at the back of untamed Nature. Men, who from platforms, have thundered forth the ancient, but ever new, principle of a common humanity, and the right of every child of Adam to a place on this planet, with air enough to breathe, and room enough to swing his arms in—men who, by their words, have touched the great heart of the world, and made hoarse voices cheer, and brawny hands to strike approval, and tough hearts to vibrate with new emotions of revealed strength and power, and a possible happiness that may be far off and yet shall be reached—poets and sages, patriots and dilettanti, political, scientific, and social revolutionists are here—and we shall just look at them, and then let them speak for themselves.


This age of ours is an age of revolutions. There is not a single branch, even of a single science, that has not been studied and investigated, with the result that our most carefully-formed ideas even on scientific subjects have been obliged to undergo a complete transformation. Another peculiarity is that there are specialists in every branch of science, art, and literature; and that certain branches of science and art become the fashion at certain periods, and exclude all others in the public mind as effectually as a new fashion in dress excludes those that are considered antiquated. And, again, as Solomon said, “there is nothing new under the sun,” so there is scarcely a fashion in art or a discovery in science that was not quite familiar to the ancient Hellenists, who, under the warm sky of Greece and by the pleasant waters of the Mediterranean, were making daily pleasure of things which in our days are the exclusive property of the highest circles of wealth and intelligence—for example, if there were one thing the ancient Greeks worshipped more than another, it was the Beautiful. What they called the to Kalon was the Divinity, whom they worshipped with all the passionate adoration of natures into which the Sun God had stricken his fire. The Beautiful in Nature—the Beautiful in mind and soul—the firmament glittering with stars, the meadows glittering with flowers, the wide levels of the sea glittering under the sunshafts—the dark eyes of men and women glittering under darker eyebrows; all these to these children of Nature were feasted on and worshipped as types and symbols of some rarer Beauty, unseen but yet to be revealed. These wonderful old Greeks have passed away; but here in the midst of our nineteenth century civilisation is an apostle of aestheticism, and aesthetics or the science of the Beautiful is once more the fashion of men. You see over there leaning against the bulwarks of the vessel is a tall and dark young gentleman, with a huge sunflower in his button-hole. He is gazing on the setting sun as if this were his last evening upon earth, and his eyes are dazzled with the lane of light that stretches to the horizon. He its the son of a Dublin oculist, and of a lady who sang the fiercest and loveliest battle-odes of that sad, that glorious period in Irish history which we call '48. He is, without doubt, the best ridiculed young man that has come before this cynical age. He is now going to be dreadfully disappointed with the Atlantic, and his mission is to evangelise the Americans with two lectures on art that shall be repeated again  p.297 and again, until the world grows tired even of laughing at him, and his adopted country takes him back to her bosom. Yet, although his mission shall be a failure, we must not suppose that there is not a deep substratum of truth underlying a vast superstructure of absurdity; and by and by you shall hear another who has for fifty years preached much the same doctrines with far different success, and who, with many eccentricities, has won for himself a homage that is rarely given to a living celebrity.

The next department in the ascending scale is social science; and here, walking arm in arm along the lee side of the ship, are two men whose ideas in some things are identical, and on others widely different, and who have said many things that have stirred many hearts. One is from San Francisco, and he used be called a prophet by his admirers: the other is from the County Mayo, and during the greater part of his life he has been styled a rebel and a felon; in physique they are not unlike. Dark and determined men, with deep eyes flashing under bushy eyebrows, but the right sleeve of the one hangs tenantless—the arm was left some years ago in the steel meshes of an English factory. The education of the one was matured under the bright dazzling sun of California; the education of the other was finished in a convict's dress out on the bleak wastes of Dartmoor, and in the blinding quarries of Portland. He has seen some terrible things, and has studied the strange riddle of humanity deep down in awful depths of suffering. Of him it might be said what the people of Verona used say of Dante:
“Eccovi l'uom ch'è stato all' Inferno.”
And hence men listen to him as they listen to no other, for they know how true is that saying of Goethe's:

  1. Who never ate his bread in sorrow,
    Who never spent the darksome hours
    Weeping and watching for the morrow,
    He knows you not, ye unseen powers. 1

But lest it should be tedious to paint for you portraits of all the different representatives of human thought who paced the deck this spring afternoon, it will suffice to say that there was scarcely a single fantasy of modern thought, sensible or whimsical, reasonable or extravagant, that had not a disciple here. Followers of Herbert  p.298 Spencer, who has reproduced in our time the ancient Athenian worship of the “unknown Good”—followers of Frederic Harrison, who disagrees with Herbert Spencer, and takes great trouble to tell the world that Agnosticism is very different thing from Positivism—a very considerable number of believers in the “evolution theory” and the Simian origin of man—a large gathering of latter-day infidels who are trying to resuscitate the ancient theories of Epicurus and Democritus—a few ladies who belong to the new sect of Theosophists, and talk glibly about what they call “esoteric Buddhism”—and moving here and there young intellectual Americans, fresh from the German universities, and holding all European philosophers very cheap compared with the humanitarianism and pantheism of their beloved master, Ralph Waldo Emerson. And, if you ask me what could have brought such representative men together, I will ask you to believe that they were en route for Montreal, where the last Session of the British Association was held.

It is growing chill, and we descend to the saloon. Just as we enter, a voice, with a foreign accent, exclaims in conclusion Of some interesting conversation: “Vorwärts! Vorwärts! This is the watchword of our century. Does not your own poet-laureate proclaim it to you—even to you, conservative Englishmen, immovable as the pyramids, insensible as their granite:”

  1. Yet in vain the distance beacons, forward, forward let us range,
    Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.
    This, the shadow of the globe, we sweep into the outer day,
    Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay. 2
“Yes,” said a deep, melodious voice that came floating down along the table. “Yes! forward is the cry—but whither?”

All looked up in amazement and saw a venerable man, whose high forehead, clad in the honours of seventy summers, betokened the very highest powers of thought. There was a hush for a moment. Then came a bustling and a shuffling of the feet, and a harsh, strident voice, pitched to the highest intonation, spoke. It was Mr. Verdun, scientist, Fellow of the Royal Society, London.
“How can you ask such a question?” he exclaimed. “Whither should we go, but where the finger of science is pointing? With all the wonders we have shown you, why will you not  p.299 believe us? We have as yet only touched the fringe of Nature's garment, and behold what she has revealed to us, what we have revealed to you. We have captured the lightnings, and compelled them to carry our messages around the earth; we have weighed the sun, we have put the ponderous planets in the scales—we have shown you in the meteoric stones the fragments of former satellites that swung their huge bulk round the earth; we have taken the suns of other systems, whose distance is so great that it paralyses the imagination, and told you the very materials of which they are composed; we have walked among the nebula of the milky way, and put the very rings of Saturn upon our fingers. We have torn open the bosom of the earth and shown you in stony manuscripts the handwriting of Nature in the days of the mammoth and leviathan; and as the service of man is the only service we acknowledge, we have bade the “little god of this planet” to rest from labour, for Nature shall be compelled to work for him. For him we harness its most dreadful powers, and bid them take him from place to place with a speed that outstrips the hurricane; for him we have paved a pathway on the mighty waters, and he laughs at the waves that thunder harmlessly over his head, and he spares his soft fingers in labours that are unworthy of him, and hands of iron and teeth of steel rend and tear and weave again garments of royal purple and tapestries that might hang before the windows of Heaven. And as all things are the same to us, for all is but matter in the end, we have divided and subdivided your creation until we have reduced it to an atom that can only be seen in a microscope, and then we have built up the same creation again even to its crowning glory—the mind of man. But you—you to whom we have revealed these things—you for whose advantage we have toiled and laboured—whose silly minds we have emancipated from antiquated superstitions about morality and virtue—you whom we have delivered from the debasing pursuits of arts and music and poetry”—
“Stop!” said the old man with a vehemence that startled us all, “stop this blasphemy against things you do not and cannot understand. It is true you, men of science, have revealed certain secrets of Nature, but how? By laying sacrilegious hands on her awful face! You have cut and delved, and maimed and sacrificed Nature and her children, until her beautiful face is scarred and blotted by you, and the hideous ugliness has fallen upon the souls  p.300 of the children of men. Wordsworth spoke with contempt of old of those “who would peep and botanise on their mother's graves”; but you, from an advanced platform of scientific iniquity, would not only sacrifice to your sinful curiosity the poor beast that licks your hand in his agony, but you would even exhume your father's remains for the sake of an experiment. And after all, what have you done? Does the sun give more light or heat to our earth since you discovered that he is a furnace of liquid fire, flinging out tongues of flame to every part of the system which he rules? Are the planets more brilliant since you discovered that in reality they are as dull as the earth itself? Is mankind better or happier since you drove him from the green fields and the blue skies to the cloudy and choking city, which by a kind of infernal chemistry drags the strength from his limbs, and the blood from his veins? Is childhood more pure and joyful since you brought it into your factories and bade it stretch forth its soft and tiny hands to grasp and control mighty limbs of steel and iron, and chased the roses from its cheeks, and the laughter from its lips, and the light from its eyes, and the music from its life, and the tender love of God, from its heart? Yes, you can analyse Nature in your test-tubes, you can spy at her in your microscopes, but can you see her with your own eyes, or receive her into your hearts? You can tell us what she makes her wonders of, and how she makes them, and how long she takes about it. But you cannot tell us what these wonders are like when they are made. When God said “Let there be light, and there was light, and God saw that it was good,” was he thinking, as he saw thus, of the exact velocity it travelled at, or the exact laws it travelled by, which you, wise men, are at infinite pains to discover? Or was he thinking of something else, which you take no pains to discover at all, of how it clothed the wings of the morning with silver, and the features of the evening with gold? Is water, think you, a nobler thing to the modern chemist, who can tell you exactly what gases it is made of, and nothing more: or to the painter, who could not tell you at all what it is made of, but who did know and could tell you what it is made—what it is made by the sunshine and the cloud-shadow and the storm-wind—who knew how it paused by the stainless mountain troutpool, a living crystal over streams of flickering amber, and how it broke itself turbid with its choirs of turbulent thunder when the rocks card it into foam, and the tempest sifts it into spray? Ah, masters  p.301 of modern science,” he continued, “you can tell us what pure water is made of, but, thanks to your drains and mills, you cannot tell us where to find it. You can, no doubt, explain to us all about the sunsets; but the smoke of your towns and factories has made it impossible for us to see one.” 3 Here to-day is a beauteous landscape, with its luxurious colourings, its broad rich meadows, carpeted with wild flowers, its ivies and mosses draping its wells and waterfalls, its clusters of violets in the shade. Here in its clefts and in its dingles, in blanched heights and woody hollows, above all by its floretted banks, and the foam-crisped wavelets of its streams, the traveller finds his joy and peace. But here comes your scientific engineer and an army of navvies, and with a snuff box full of dynamite blows all this loveliness into Erebus and diabolic night for ever. And close in their wake, into the very heart and depth of all this beauty, and mercilessly bending with every bend of it, with noise and shrieking and howling, your rail way drags its close-clinging damnation. The rocks are not big enough to be tunnelled—they must be blasted away; the brook is not wide enough to be bridged—it is covered in, and is thenceforward a drain; and the only scenery left for you in the once delicious valley is alternation of embankments of clay with pools of slime. All this is bad enough for us; but what is to become of our children? What favours of high destiny has your civilisation to promise her children who have been reared in mephitic fume and not in the mountain breeze; who have for playground heaps of ashes, instead of banks of flowers; whose Christmas holidays brought them no memory, whose Easter sun no hope; and from whose existence of the present and the future commerce has filched the earth, and science blotted out the sky? 4

A deep silence followed the outburst of indignant eloquence. The scientist fidgeted and tossed about in his chair, and somehow everyone felt that science was a kind of criminal that, under pretence of doing a great deal of good, had in reality affected an infinity of evil. But the stream of the conversation had tended so much towards the lines within which Mr. George is working out his theories, that everyone looked to him to say something on the important subject they were discussing.

(To be continued.)

2. Part II


Mr. George rose slowly, and in a grave, methodical manner, he said:—
“You have raised the question of questions—the one supreme problem that is stirring and agitating the world to its deepest depths. Forward is the cry; but “the farther we go the deeper we sink into the sad complexity of a civilisation where wealth and want in sad companionship are seen side by side, where the few are glutted and the many are starving, and the gifts of the Creator, and the improvements of man, alike seem only to increase the misery of the multitude. I do not find fault with science; but I say that so long as society needs readjustment, as it does, so long as our social laws and systems are completely out of harmony with the eternal laws of justice and truth, science and all the other ministers to man will be angels of destruction, and not messengers of mercy. In the very centres of our civilisation to-day are want and suffering enough to make sick at heart whoever does not close his eyes or steel his nerves. We dare not put the blame on Mother Nature, or upon our great Father, God. Supposing that at our prayers, Nature assumed a mightier power than it possesses, supposing that at the behest by which the universe sprang into being there should glow in the sun a greater heat, new virtue fill the air, fresh vigour the soil; that for every blade of grass that now grows two should spring up, and the seed that now increases fiftyfold should increase a hundredfold. Would poverty be abated and want relieved? Manifestly no! The result would be in our present environments that the luxury of a few would be increased, the misery of the many would be deepened. This is no bare supposition. The conclusion comes from facts with which we are quite familiar. Within our own times, under our very eyes, that power which is above all, and in all, and through all; that power of which the whole world is but the manifestation; that power which maketh all things, and without which is made nothing that is made, has increased the bounty which men may enjoy as truly as though the fertility of Nature had been increased. So my friend here, Mr. Verdun, has declared. Into the mind of one came the  p.359 thought which harnessed steam for the service of mankind. To the wiser ear of another was whispered the secret that compels the lightning to bear a message round the globe. In every direction have the laws of matter been revealed; in every part of industry have arisen arms of iron and fingers of steel, whose effect in the production of wealth has been precisely the same as an increase in the fertility of Nature. What is the result? The few are more powerful, the many more helpless; under the shadow of the marble mansion is the vile kraal of the workingman; and silks and furs are ruffled by contact with rags in the streets.” 5 Ay! even your philosophers have told us that all this is as it should be—that success in life is the test of virtue, and that the weak must go to the wall. Yes! your society is like the Hindoo idol-car, that flings to the earth and crushes those who have not power to keep pace with it. In the amphitheatres of the Roman people, when the gladiator was mortally wounded, the people passed sentence upon him, and commanded that he should die. In the world of to-day the same cruelty prevails. The moment a man sinks under the burden of this world's cares, little pity has the world for him. And now, gentlemen,” he concluded, “perhaps as you have allowed me to so speak so far, you would just hear another who has said exactly the same thing but in verse:—

    Io Victis

  1. I sing the hymn of the conquered who fell in the battle of life—
    The hymn of the wounded, the beaten, who died overwhelmed in the strife;
    Not the jubilant song of the victors, for whom the resounding acclaim
    Of the nations was lifted in chorus, whose brows wore the chaplet of fame—
    But the hymn of the low and the humble, the weary, the broken in heart
    Who strove and who failed, acting bravely a silent and desperate part.
    Whose youth bore no flower of its branches, whose hopes burned in ashes away;
    From whose hands slipped the prize they had grasped at, who stood at the dying of day
    With the work of their life all around them, unpitied, unheeded, alone,
    With Death swooping down o'er their failure, and all but their faith overthrown.
  2. While the voice of the world shouts its chorus, its power for those who have won,
    While the trumpet is sounding triumphant, and high to the breeze and the sun
    Gay banners are waving, hands clapping, and hurrying feet
    Thronging after the laurel-crowned victors, I stand on the field of defeat
    In the shadows 'mongst those who are fallen, and wounded and dying—and there
    Chant a requiem low, place my hand on their pain-knitted brow, breathe a prayer.
  3.  p.360
  4. Hold the hand that is helpless, and whisper: They only life's victory win
    Who have fought the good fight and have vanquished the demon that tempts us within;
    Who have held to their faith unseduced by the prize that the world holds on high,
    Who have dared for a high cause to suffer, resist, fight—if need be, to die.
  5. Say history, who are life's victors? Unroll thy long annals, and say
    Are they those whom the world called the victors, who won the success of the day?
    The martyr or hero? The Spartan, who fell at Thermopylae's tryst,
    Or the Persians of Xerxes? His judges or Socrates? Pilate, or Christ? 6

“Would to heaven, that once and for ever this great gospel of humanity were accepted! “If it were so, the possibilities of the future were unlimited! With want destroyed, with greed changed to noble passion, with the fraternity that is born of equality taking the place of the jealousy and fear that now array men against each other; with mental power loosed by conditions that give to the humblest comfort and leisure, and who shall measure the heights to which our civilisation may soar? Words fail the thought! It is the golden age which poets have sung, and high-raised seers have told in metaphor! It is the golden vision that has always haunted men with gleams of fitful splendour! It is what he saw whose eyes at Patmos were closed in a trance! It is the culmination of Christianity—the city of God upon earth, with its walls of jasper and its gates of pearl! It is the reign of the Prince of Peace.”” 7

“Fine talk! fine talk!” said a young man whom I had not hitherto seen. He seemed scarcely more than a boy; yet there was a vehemence and earnestness about him which commanded respect. And the man that is in earnest about anything is always sure of a respectful hearing. “Fine talk!” said he again, “if to-morrow were the millennium! You preach a doctrine of science,” said he, turning to Mr. Verdun, “but in the same breath you degrade humanity, and belie the sanctity of man's origin and the grandeur of his future destiny. And you,” said he, turning to Mr. Ruskin, “advocate culture and refinement as a salve for all our wounds, forgetting that the higher your cultured men and women advance, the nearer they are to barbarism as loathsome as Rousseau suggested. And you, Mr. George, preach a Gospel of Humanity. That is the best teaching yet. But so far as I can  p.361 see, Humanity left to itself is perpetually disgracing itself. From every side what do we hear but charges and countercharges of cruelty and brutality flung from the poor against the rich, and from the rich back again against the poor? Take the opinion of the one man who has voiced the sentiments of the century more clearly than any other, and what does he say:—

  1. Science sits under her olive, and slurs at the days gone by!
    When the poor are hovelled and hustled together each sex like swine,
    When only the ledger lives, and when only not all men lie,
    Peace in her vineyard, yes! but a company forges the wine.
    And the vitriol madness flushes up to the ruffian's head,
    Till the filthy bylane rings to the yell of the trampled wife,
    And chalk and alum and plaster are sold to the poor for bread,
    And the spirit of murder reeks in the very veins of life.
    And sleep must lie down armed, for the villainous centrebits
    Grind on the wakeful ear in the hush of the moonless nights,
    While another is cheating the sick of a few last gasps as he sits
    To pestle a poisoned poison behind the crimson lights. 8

“He wrote that fifty years ago when he was a young man.” said Mr. Verdun. “We have progressed since then.”

“Did he?” said the young man with a sneer; “did he? But what did he write yesterday, in his old age? Listen:—

  1. Pluck the mighty from their seat, but set us meek ones in their place,
    Pillory wisdom in your markets, and pelt your offal in her face.
    Tumble Nature heel over head, and yelling with the yelling street
    Set the feet above the brain, and swear the brain is in the feet.
    Feed the budding rose of boyhood with the drainage of your sewer,
    Send the drain into the fountain, lest the stream should issue pure,
    Set the maiden fancies wallowing in the troughs of Zolaism—
    Forward, forward, ay, and backward, downward too into the abysm.
    Do your best to charm the worst, to lower the rising race of men.
    Have we risen from out the beast? then back into the beast again.
There is your Literature! Now here's your Progress!” “
  1. There among the glooming alleys Progress halts on palsied feet,
    Crime and hunger cast our maidens by the thousand on the street.
    There the master scrimps his haggard sempstress of her daily bread,
    There a single sordid attic holds the living and the dead.
    Nay, your pardon, cry your “Forwards!” yours are hope and youth, but I —
    Eighty winters leave the dog too lame to follow with the cry.
    Lame and old, and past his time, and passing now into the night,
    Yet I would the rising race were half as eager for the light. 9


“So would I! But the light won't come! And neither science nor culture, nor humanity will bring it! For my part, I have thought the whole thing over, and I agree with old Thomas Carlyle, when he declared, looking up at the splendours of heaven and down on the gloom of earth, “Eh! it's a sad sight!” I agree with George Eliot in that famous remark she made to her bosom friend in her old age: “There is but one remedy, my child, for the sad race of men—one grand simultaneous act of suicide!””

This was rather too much, I thought; so I went on deck. It was a glorious night. Far, far down the horizon, great masses of cloud, their blackness softened into purple by the lingering light, overtopped each other, and built up their airy battlements high into the zenith. Everywhere beside the sky was a pale liquid azure, through which the dim stars shone, and peace, Nature's sublime peace, slept over all. I strolled up and down the deck, alone with my thoughts, and these thoughts were of the strange discussion I had heard. Who was right?—or who was even nearest the truth—apostles of humanity, of science, and of culture? Had they found the great central secret of the Universe, or were they, after all, but blind leaders of the blind—men puffed up with knowledge and pride, to whom the great Revelation should never come? I confess my sympathies were altogether with the prophet of humanity. Yet I knew, and knew well, that all the wealth of sterling probity and enthusiasm could never reduce his theories to; practice—it would be all in vain:—

  1. The still, sad music of humanity,
    like moanings of a midnight sea,
would still be heard, and still would the words of the poet continue:—
  1. For morning never wore to eve,
    But some poor human heart did break.

And yet how could the Almighty Creator have framed this marvellous universe, with all its splendours, for a race of splenetic and unhappy men? Look around! what a miracle of splendour! The great moon is lifting itself above the waste of waters, and flinging a rippling splendour over the waves. She is scarred and clothed with fleecy clouds, which she drops one by one, until now she looks forth the acknowledged empress of the night, and the stars grow pale and draw in their lights when they behold her.  p.363 The silence which Nature loves is upon all things—that silence which Nature never breaks but in music — the music of the birds and streams, and the solemn Gregorian of the ocean! I can hear the splash of the water at the stern, and the throbbing of the powerful engines, that with every sweep of the propeller drives the giant ship through the waters. I can hear the tinkling of a piano in the saloon, and a lady's voice, and the first notes of La ci darem si mano. My friends have turned from philosophy to music. So much the better. But here, too, is another sound, which I certainly have heard before, but I cannot locate it. It seems to be creeping along the side of the vessel, and even to be rising from the water. It pauses and swells in rhythmical rotation, like the sweep of a storm in a pine forest, or the mournful cadences of the sea, as it thunders in cataracts on the beach. And there is a something about it which reminds you of a Greek chorus. The tiny monotone of one voice, and the hoarse murmur of many. It comes not from the saloon or deck of the steamer; not from the wind, there is none; not from the waves — the shores are fifty miles distant. Let us look forward. Yes, here it is coming unmistakeably from the dark depths of the steerage. We descend. What a sight! All along the sides of the vessel, pale and angular Norwegian faces, lean and hungry Italian faces, calm and heavy Teutonic faces, are looking — at what? A spectacle for angels and men, and even for philosophers! An aged Irish peasant, clad in rough, homespun frieze, and without any ornament save the glory of white hair that streams upon his shoulders, is surrounded by a group of Irish men, women, and children. Their heads are reverently bent, and the deep bass voice of the men and the light tenors of the women and children blend in touching harmony. And what are they chaunting? Not the La ci darem of an Italian maestro of yesterday, but a certain canticle that was composed by an archangel some nineteen centuries ago, and his audience was a woman, but blessed above all and among all. And the chorus is another canticle, composed by a chorus of 100,000 voices fourteen centuries ago, and on the streets of an Asiatic city, when the gates of the Cathedral were thrown open, and mitred prelates came forth, and the people anticipated the decision of their, pastors, and proclaimed the woman of Nazareth to be the mother of the living God. And these two canticles go on and are repeated in the musioal murmur of human voices, until they conclude  p.364 with the great hymn of praise to the Father, the Son and the Spirit, who are and have been and shall for ever be! The canticle of the Rosary is familiar to these poor exiles. They learned it at their mother's knees — they sang it in the lonely white washed chapel on the Irish hills — they will carry it in their hearts and on their lips, and like the children of Israel by the waters of Babylon, they will sing that song of Sion in a strange land!

Once more upon deck — this time with some new sensations. Here I find myself right in the midst of two civilisations.

The civilisation of the saloon, though in concrete form it dates but from yesterday, is but a series of broken lights, caught from the suspended or rejected philosophies of the past. The mysticism of Plato, the doubtings of Epicurus, the blank materialism of Lucretius, have been revived in our time, and find issue in speculative and intellectual Atheism, and in such barren and hopeless solutions of the great problem of human happiness as those to which we have just listened. Science, groping with a thousand arms in every direction, finds itself even in the material world confronted by a wall of blackness, impenetrable, insurmountable; and somehow the wayward movements of humanity, which it hoped to bring under cosmical discipline, break away from its arbitrary laws, and rush into chaos and disorder. With every appliance that wealth can afford, with all the facilities that private patronage and governmental support can give, with all the enthusiasm with which the public follow each fresh advance, and hail each fresh revelation, modern pagan civilisation is inconsistent and illogical in its teachings, false in its professions, and a dismal failure in its attempts to meet the moral and intellectual needs of men. A teacher without knowledge, a prophet without inspiration, a magician who has lost his charm, its judgment is the reverse of that which fell on the Jewish prophet, for it curses where it seeks to bless.

Far different is the civilisation which is represented by the humble occupants of the steerage, far different the philosophy on which it unconsciously rests, far different the gigantic effects which it produces and will never cease to produce. These poor exiles do not know that the philosophy which they profess is the steady light of reason that burned in the mind of Aristotle centuries before Christ, and was afterwards incorporated into the scholastic teaching of the Church. They do not know  p.365 that their faith is buttressed by weighty arguments which all the ingenuity of satanic intelligence has not shaken, though put forth in language so eloquent that the soul refuses to forget its music, even when the reason has recognised its falsehood. They do not know that Augustine and Aquinas, that Jerome and Bernard, exhausted all the riches of their matchless intellects to illuminate and adorn the faith which they, in all simplicity, profess; and that in the full white light of the nineteenth century such colossal geniuses as Newman and Manning, having passed through every phase of speculative belief or unbelief, have become at last, in the full vigour and maturity of mental power, little children, professing the same doctrines the exiles hold, and finding their strength in the same prayers the exiles are just repeating. They only know that the history of their faith is this. A morning of sunshine, when, like the haze over a summer sea, the sunshine of faith lay warmly over the land; and then a long night of darkness and gloom, streaked with fire, into which their historians plunging, have only heard, as Richter in his dream, the rain falling pitilessly in the abysses, and the cry of a despairing people, “Father in Heaven, where art thou?” From the gloom and the storm and the shadow, from the wreck and ruin of seven centuries, they have saved the memory and tradition of the loftiest ideas that can guide the principles and sway the emotions of men. And now at last emancipated, about to tread on free soil, to breath the free air, under the pulsing of a free flag, they will be given an opportunity of testing and showing, side by side with the barrenness of Pagan civilisation, the fruitfulness of the Christian ideal. For “Forward” too is the motto of these exiles; and their eyes, wet with the despair of the past, are straining after the hope of the future. Let us follow them. In a few days, masters and servants, the wise ones and the foolish, will be hustled together for a moment on the quays of New York, and then will separate. The masters will go into their drawing rooms and counting houses, the servants into the kitchens and workshops. The masters will hang their splendid rooms with Oriental tapestries, and wonderful pictures of actresses and opera singers, of horses and dogs, will gleam from the gilded walls. The servants will hang on the whitewash of their attics some penny prints, but they will be pictures of angels and saints. The masters will write and lecture on humanity and philanthropy — the servants know nothing of these things, but they will build  p.366 with their hard earnings convents, colleges, asylums, and magnificent hospitals, where the highest medical skill will minister to suffering humanity, where holy nuns will lay their soft hands on the throbbing brows of the sick, and priests will whisper to dying ears the only message that can bring solace to the stricken. The masters will build superb palaces for themselves, glistening in white marble; and with a kind of unconscious irony, the servants will erect side by side with these palaces mighty temples which look down with disdain on these abodes of mortals, and whose glittering spires, like fingers of fire, teach to these proud masters the lesson of the kitchen and the attic, that “forward” means “upward,” or else a rushing towards eternal destruction. And some day, when the sun is shining very brightly, the masters will come down from their high places and they will stand on the mosaic pavement of these temples, and they will stare and wonder at their marvellous beauty — the carving and the fluting and foliating of the pillars, the white glimmering statues of saints; the poems that are wrought in the stained glass of lancelights and rose windows. But they will never know that all this architectural loveliness was wrought by the prayers and faith of the rough handed labourers on the quays and railways, and the modest Irish girls who minister to their own lordly wants at home. Unnoticed and unrecognised, they carry on the great process of civilisation save when some great seer, like Emerson, points to their work, and tells his countrymen that even the material prosperity of their great Republic has been built by the hands of the Irish race. And not only in America, but in Australia and New Zealand, in “the summer isles of Eden” that slumber on the broad bosom of the Pacific, in every region that is hallowed by the light of the Southern Cross, the same miracle is wrought by the same consecrated race. To them has been whispered the great mediaeval secret that built Cologne Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, the secret that has placed St. Patrick's Cathedral a shining symbol in the heart of the most worldly of modern cities--the secret that made the Irish miners of Australia take the Cathedral of Sydney three times from the teeth of the flames, and three times flung it higher and higher into the blue vault of Heaven. And the spiritual influence of the race is quite equal to the material. Wherever they go, they shed around the light of faith that is almost vision, of purity, unassailable, of strong enthusiasm for what is just and right, or fierce  p.367 hatred for what is cruel and wrong, and a passionate love for that hallowed isle in the Northern seas, where they believe that every blade of grass that grows springs from the relics of a hero or a saint. And who can doubt that if truth is great and must prevail, if all these wonders are manifestations of a supernatural mission and a supernatural power — if they are evidences that the faith these exiles hold is the only philosophy on which civilisation can be built — who can doubt that the final resolution in the history of the world will be effected by the silent forces these exiles wield — by the new life they will quicken, by the contempt they will pour on the idols of a vanishing philosophy, and by the mastery in every department of religious and scientific thought they will infallibly win? Let the world and the leaders of modern thought say what they please. To my mind it is certain as if written with a finger of fire on the firmament of Heaven, that the only civilising agency in the world to-day is the Catholic Church, working chiefly through the apostles of the Irish race.

Whilst I am thus thinking of them, they are sunk in profound slumber. They are dreaming of the purple heather and the yellow gorse — of the pattern and the dance — of the white-haired mother who stretched her hands in a long farewell from the cabin door.

It is just striking twelve. I hear steps coming up the companionway from the saloon. Three men stand before me in the moonlight.
“I tell you,” said one, “the kings of the future are the men of science.”
“No,” said the second “but the men of culture, education and refinement.”
“Nay, nay,” said Mr. G., “but they in whose hearts are found some deep echoes of the great voice of humanity.”
“Not even these,” thought I, “but the men of faith and prayer.”


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Title (uniform): The Two Civilisations

Author: Patrick Augustine Sheehan

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Electronic edition compiled by: Beatrix Färber

Funded by: School of History, University College, Cork

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Extent: 9085 words

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Publisher: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College, Cork

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Date: 2013

Distributor: CELT online at University College, Cork, Ireland.

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  • [Details to follow].

Canon Sheehan on the Internet

  • http://www.canonsheehanremembered.com.


  1. Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (=Jean Paul), 'Rede des toten Christus vom Weltgebäude herab, daß kein Gott sei', in: Jean Paul, Blumen-, Frucht- und Dornenstücke, oder Ehestand, Tod und Hochzeit des Armenadvokaten F. St. Siebenkäs (Berlin 1796–97).
  2. Alfred Lord Tennyson, Maud, and other poems (London 1855).
  3. H. W. Mallock, The New Republic (London 1877).
  4. Henry George, Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth: The Remedy (San Francisco 1879).
  5. Alfred Lord Tennyson, Locksley Hall Sixty Years After (London 1886).
  6. Herman Joseph Heuser, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: the story of an Irish parish priest as told chiefly by himself in books, personal memoirs, and letters (New York 1917).
  7. Arthur Coussens. P. A. Sheehan, zijn leven en zijn werken (Brugge/Bruges 1923).
  8. Michael P. Linehan, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: Priest, Novelist, Man of Letters (Dublin 1952).
  9. John Henning, The Place of German Theology in the Works of Canon Sheehan, Irish Ecclesiastical Review, Ser. 5, vol. 80 (December 1853) 379–87.
  10. A Note on Canon Sheehan's Interest in German Literature, Modern Language Review, 49 [1954], 352–55.
  11. James O'Brien (ed.), The Collected Letters of Canon Sheehan of Doneraile, 1883–1913 (Wells 2013).
  12. James O'Brien, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile 1852–1913: Outlines for Literary Biography (Wells 2013). [Bibliographical references 205–11.]
  13. Joachim Fischer, 'Canon Sheehan und die deutsche Kultur', In: Joachim Fischer, Das Deutschlandbild der Iren 1890–1939, (Heidelberg: Winter 2000).

The edition used in the digital edition

‘The Two Civilisations’. In: The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature‍ 18.204, 205. Ed. by Matthew Russell SJ, pp. 293–301, 358–367.

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  editor 	 = {},
  title 	 = {The Two Civilisations},
  journal 	 = {The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature},
  editor 	 = {Matthew Russell SJ},
  address 	 = {Dublin},
  publisher 	 = {Irish Jesuit Province},
  date 	 = {June 1890},
  volume 	 = {18 },
  number 	 = {204, 205},
  pages 	 = {293–301; 358–367}


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Creation: By Patrick Augustine Sheehan (1852–1913)

Date: 1890

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  • The text is in English. (en)
  • A few words are in Latin. (la)
  • A few words are in latinised Greek. (gr)
  • A few words are in Italian. (it)
  • A few words are in German. (de)
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Keywords: essay; prose; 19c; christianity vs science; positivism; catholicism

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  1. 2013-11-11: Additions to bibliographical details made. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
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  4. 2013-09-12: Text proofed (1); structural and content mark-up added; provisional TEI header created. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  5. 2013-09-11: Text scanned. (file capture Beatrix Färber)

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  1. Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß/ wer nie die kummervollen Nächte/ auf seinem Bette weinend saß/ Der kennt euch nicht, ihr himmlischen Mächte [Goethe, Wilhelm Meister]. 🢀

  2. Locksley Hall. 🢀

  3. The New Republic, by W. H. Mallock. 🢀

  4. Ruskin. 🢀

  5. Henry George, Progress and Poverty. [Available online at http://www.henrygeorge.org.] 🢀

  6. William Wetmore Story,, Blackwood's Magazine🢀

  7. Progress and Poverty, Henry George. 🢀

  8. Maud, Tennyson🢀

  9. Locksley Hall: Forty recte: Sixty years after, Tennyson🢀


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