As this is the Jubilee year of the Society for Ethical Culture, a stately, grave, and noble address by its Founder will be read with double interest, as much for its author as for its subject. For more than fifty years Felix Adler has been a seeker after “the secret of the good life,” alike in philosophy and in practice; and the result is a fine ethical mysticism, worth more to his country than many battleships.
Born in Germany seventy-five years ago, educated at Columbia University, with studies at Berlin and Heidelberg, Dr. Adler became professor of Hebrew and Oriental Literature at Cornell in 1874. Two years later he founded the Society for Ethical Culture in New York, and has since been its leader and teacher. His philosophy is set forth in a noble book, An Ethical Philosophy of Life, aglow with a passion for righteousness, rich in spiritual gleanings, surveying the whole field of human relations.
In 1923 Dr. Adler was Hibbert Lecturer at Oxford, and his lectures, The Reconstruction of the Moral Ideal, must be accounted one of the pioneer books of our time in its quest for a group-morality. It is a teacher austerely chaste and clear-seeing, both in thought and style, who speaks to us in the following address, the full title of which was “An Ethical Attitude toward the Departed.”
The frequent inadequacy of language to express meanings is forcibly brought home to one in seeking a word to designate the friends no longer with us. Shall we say “the dead”? But dead means utterly gone. “Utterness” is its characteristic in its widest as well as its narrowest use. Shall we say “the defunct,” that is, those who have ceased to function? Shall we say “the deceased,” the departed? The German language has an advantage in the word selig (blessed). A German can speak of his father as my blessed father. The French also have the word feu, which, by the way, has no connection with fire, but with the Latin fatum, meaning those who have accomplished their fate, their destiny. Montesquieu says “feu ma mère.” In English, perhaps the word “departed” is the least objectionable.
Looking back on human history there are two striking phenomena that stand out preëminent. One is the instinctive unwillingness of men to admit annihilation, the tenacious affirmation of the persistence in some form of those who have disappeared from the scene. Curiously, even the materialist pays homage to this notion of persistence by asserting, with apparent satisfaction, that the elements of which the body is composed, as atoms at least, remain indestructible. The other phenomenon alluded to is the fervid desire of the survivors to do something for the departed to show them love—love ever exhibiting itself in the desire to benefit the beloved object. It is this trait that explains the labor and expense lavished on the tombs of the ancient Egyptian kings, one of which, that of Tutankhamen, has recently been opened after over three thousand years. The treasure it contains, the costly furnishings, are evidence of the desire to minister to the comfort and to mark the lofty station of the king, who in some sense was supposed still to inhabit the dark chamber.
The funeral rites described in the Iliad, designed as they were to speed the journey of the departed hero to the land of shades, bear similar testimony. Likewise in every Roman Catholic Church the masses said for the repose of the souls are evidence in point, as also the mourners’ prayer—Kaddish—repeated by the Jew for an entire year, and thereafter on every anniversary of a parent’s death.
There is a third phenomenon in connection with this subject that should not be overlooked, namely, the almost inconceivable tendency to keep up illusions about graves, and about those who are supposed to sleep in them, illusions that fly straight in the face of facts. The very notion of the loved one as resting in the grave is a preposterous trick of fancy. That which lies in the grave is plainly not the beloved person, is no person at all, but a decaying organism, on the actual condition of which the mind may not dwell. Why then speak of the friend as “sleeping” in the grave? Why keep up this false notion? Is it merely a caprice of the poetic imagination? Even as such it would not be entirely harmless. But there is plenty of evidence that poetic metaphor is too often taken literally. Sentimental people seem to feel that they are nearer to the one they have lost at the particular spot where what is perishable in him is in process of perishing, than they would be elsewhere; and so a kind of cultus of the grave arises which is really shocking in its consequences. I remember the case of a woman who, after she had lost her only daughter, visited the grave day after day, neglecting her home duties, making a hideous travesty of grief, haunting the cemetery, clinging to the turf. This, of course, is an extreme example, but it illustrates sentimentality usurping the place of genuine sentiment. It brings out the wrong turn of feeling, of which we have also many milder instances. What matters is precisely to turn the feelings in the opposite direction—from that which is perishable and which is bound to perish, to that which is, if there be any such thing, as we hope to find there is, imperishable.
Of course, the average human mind is incapable of conceiving that anything exists which cannot be touched or seen, and so the average individual finds himself in the following dilemma. His instinct leads him to believe that his friend cannot be wholly gone. But the friend being invisible, the mind fastens, contrary to the plain facts, on the body of the friend, as if it were somehow living, only asleep. Or when attention is diverted from the grave as the abode of the friend, there still remains the incapacity to think of him otherwise than bodily, and so in imagination he is invested with an attenuated body, a body which is as little body as possible but still a body. He becomes what is called a spirit, but what is really a ghost, a thing floating somewhere in upper air, no one knows where.
In any case it is best, as soon as possible after death of that which dies, to think of that which lives. And for this reason the practice of cremation is commendable, since it hastens the process of dissolution by the pure ministry of flame, and at once and entirely causes to disappear that which can be no longer visible or palpable.
At the present day, however, one cannot help noticing a radical change in the world in regard to people’s attitude toward the departed. The too close clinging to the visible self of the friend is becoming the exception. The instinctive belief, if it be, as I think, instinctive, in the persistence of something imperishable in the friend is, at least temporarily, becoming weakened, and instead the waters of oblivion are allowed to close over the departed and the memory of the departed. The quick forgetting—“out of sight, out of mind”—seems to be becoming more general.
The reasons for this change of attitude are not far to seek. One is the insane speed of modern life. We have not the time to remember those who have gone. We have hardly the time for self-recollection. The pace is too dizzy. We cannot stand still. Formerly, when a funeral passed through the streets, with measured step to solemn music, the passers-by stopped, bared the head in token of respect. Nowadays one hardly notices a funeral—there are so many that rush by; and since the auto hearse has come into use, the dead themselves seem, as it were, to be caught in the general whirl of movement, impatient to hurry on.
Again, the feeling largely prevails that a man has only this one life to live, that he too will presently be carried off the scene, and therefore that it is the part of wisdom to make the most of this brief existence while one has it, and not to cloud the present sunshine with the shadows of sad remembrance. Or again, in some cases, there is a sort of depreciation of the older generation by the younger, a sort of irreverence for the past that tends to sweep out of mind the memory of older persons who have passed away first, who belong to the past. They were regarded as backward while they still lived; why should one care to remember them particularly when they are no longer present? The recent stupendous progress in science and invention has contributed to this feeling. The science of today is far in advance of the science even of yesterday. Text-books of ten years ago are already obsolete, and modern inventiveness is registering achievements beyond the dreams even of our recent predecessors.
But the same is not true of character and human worth. The man in the street today, the average American, for instance, just as a man, does not compare with the noble, rounded characters of antiquity—the great Greeks and Romans, the great figures of Hebrew prophecy, the fine types of the Renaissance, and at least certain ones among the fathers of our Republic. And so, even among the unscientific and humbler parents of the present generation, there may be examples of human excellence which it is not well to ignore, nor to commit to the dust-bin of the past.
These are general considerations. There are also more specific motives that conduce to the present change of attitude—the wish to forget, the invocation of oblivion. Sometimes the loss is so keenly felt by the survivors that they shrink from mentioning the name in conversation. The wound is still too sensitive, the grief too poignant, the vacancy in the home circle too recent. Now in this way the habit of silence with regard to the departed is formed, and the months pass, and the years pass, and the silence continues, until inevitably the image of the departed becomes dim.
Or again, a man exceptionally devoted to his wife cannot bear to think of the loss of her, and forcibly to distract himself, plunges into work, deliberately lets himself be absorbed in work. And so, again in time, a habit is formed, the feelings become less painful indeed, but also the thought of the lost one grows more faint.
In many families among the best people I have noticed that the remembrance of fathers and grandfathers, still vivid in my own recollection, to all appearances at least has been blotted out. Also I am a member of a club of scholars, very limited in number, in close relations for many years. One of our members, whom we very greatly respected, died a few years ago. I do not think that I have heard his name mentioned amongst us a single time since then. Why this silence, if it does not mean “Let the dead bury their dead”?
But there is another situation of which we must have the courage to speak. The silence may be due to the fact that the person who has gone was objectionable, that one does not wish to speak of him, that one has not so much grief as a grievance, which has not been purged out of one’s bosom. And therefore, in order not to rake up the embers of old hatreds, old misunderstandings, it is thought best to let the recollection of the one who has gone go with him, deliberately to forget.
But it is time to end this review, and to consider the ethical attitude towards the departed. What should it be ideally? How shall it be defined? It is to be defined in relation to the task of mankind on this earth—the task of mankind as a whole, and hence also of every human being. That task is progress toward the more perfect society, the ethically perfect society, toward the incarnation of the spiritual principle in human society, the principle which bids us live in promoting life, instead of living as the beasts do, at the expense of other life. To ethicize human relationships is the task. Just as we hallow marriage by thinking of the relation in which the life of the past streams through the married couple into the life of the future, to be purified and enhanced as it passes, so we hallow our relation to the departed by the like orientation towards the future goal of mankind. The way we are to think of the departed one is as of one whose duty and destiny it was to aid in this great human business of ethical progress. What did he accomplish, what valuable qualities had he which deserve to be transmitted, to be perpetuated by ourselves, the survivors? What seeds of good were in him which require to be further developed? What light did his failure as well as his aspirations shed upon the spiritual possibilities of man?
Bearing this in mind, we must at the same time strictly determine to deal with actualities, for instance not to pretend that the departed have always been good or that they may not have been commonplace from the world’s point of view, nonentities, or that they have not left stings behind which one finds it hard to extract from one’s consciousness. The question is, how can one apply the ethical attitude in the three situations just mentioned? There are bad lives. Some of the departed have lived bad lives. Not indeed absolutely bad—no human being is absolutely bad. But it may happen that a son is unfortunate enough to inherit a name which his father has disgraced. What is his duty? To atone for his father, to expiate the offense—not merely from a sense of pride—to clean the family escutcheon, not merely in order that he may hold his head erect, despite his bearing the once dishonored but now by him honored name. The deeper thought is: Humanity retrograded in your father; it is for you, the son, to recover the ground lost by humanity. That this is not a fanciful notion, but an effectual motive, not a few notable examples prove.
There are commonplace lives. On the occasion of the funeral obsequies, the officiating speaker, asking for particulars about the departed, is not infrequently met with the embarrassed remark that there is nothing particular to be said. There were no events of special interest that marked his life, there are no outstanding qualities to be pointed to. To me at least, I am bound to say, it is just such a life that is most appealing—the life in which the possibilities existed, but were never unfolded. It is not the so-called important events, it is not what a man has done as a citizen, or as a philanthropist, that really impress me. They do not impress me so much because they are surface manifestations, because it is at least possible that a man may have been distinguished in that way, and yet have been unspiritual, unfine to the core. I do not, of course, mean to imply that public spirit and manifest virtue are inconsistent with a high type of spirituality. I insist that the one does not necessarily imply the other.
And further, in regard to these commonplace lives, there is always something that demands expression, especially the basic human relationships of father, mother, brother and the like. These afford a text to dwell upon. These challenge comment and eulogy. The relationships themselves should be eulogized. The beauty that is implicit in them should be conjured up, even if the departed person did not fulfill the rôle of the ideal father, or the husband, or the brother, or what not. Who ever does live up to the ideal? Yet he suggested that ideal. The very relation in which he stood to the survivor evokes the ideal from its hidden depth. At the funeral the object should be to lead those present to take in the whole of the life that has here ended. We see one another by fits and starts, we get glimpses of each other’s personality. We rarely see even those with whom we are constantly associated, in their totality. The moment when they go from us is the time to fix their memory, to draw a mental portrait of them as it were, and to hang it in the gallery of memory. But especially the basic human relationships and their sacred meaning is the topic on which one should dwell. I have said that there are bad lives which should he expiated, and that there are also commonplace lives, in which, however, the human relationships stand out prominent; and that which is implicit in these relations should be made explicit. Expiation and explication are the two first points significant of the ethical attitude.
In the next place there are cases in which the remembrance of the departed is difficult for the survivor because of friction, of misunderstanding. For instance—there are two brothers, one is scientifically minded, the other religiously minded. The one makes almost a fetish of scientific exactness, and has little respect for those intellectual and moral activities in which the mind is constrained to grope for certainty without attaining more than approximation—the difference involved being that between the sphere in which the relation of cause and effect predominates and the sphere in which the relation of means to ends predominates. The consequence of the disparity in temperament and intellectual outlook between the two brothers is felt throughout their lives. Natural affection remains the bond, holds them together. But in a way the very closeness of the tie which is never relaxed only accentuates the painfulness of the intellectual uncongeniality. The one brother dies. What shall be the ethical attitude of the other? I have said above that on the occurrence of death, the survivor should paint the mental portrait of the departed as he was. I now go very much further and say, the survivor should paint the spiritual image as the departed would have been if his nature had been ideally completed—in the instance mentioned, as he would have been if, beyond his honorable scientific conscientiousness he had also embraced the ideal of perfection as it is seized by the religious mind. The spiritual image thus completed will then react upon the survivor, will have the effect upon him of supplementing his nature on the scientific side, where it needs to be supplemented.
We have thus three leadings that mark the ethical attitude—expiation, explication, supplementation. I mentioned in the beginning the instinctive unwillingness of mankind to admit annihilation, the instinctive impulse to affirm continuity of some sort, and also to wish to do something for the benefit of the beloved who are no longer with us. Continuity, in my account of the ethical attitude, is now defined in terms of influence. The continuity of the life that is no longer visibly present, is in its influence on the survivors. This presupposes the sovereign conception of the task of humanity, that is, of progress toward the ethically perfect society. If this goal be ruled out, then the influence is a transient phenomenon, a wave that rises and subsides, and to speak of persistence in connection with it is illegitimate. And the relation is not unilateral, as some think, the remembrance benefiting us, while we cannot benefit the departed. We benefit them by completing their spiritual image. That is, by idealizing them. Idealizing, however, must be strictly distinguished from idolizing. Idolizing is to represent the departed as if they were perfect, which no human beings are. Idealizing is the sublime work of the imagination, to represent them as they would be with their deficiencies supplied.
The ethically perfect society is the goal, but this goal, you will remind me, is never attained. True, but the increasing vision of the perfect spiritual society is attained and in that vision the reality of what man is in essence, now and in all eternity, is given. This being so, a final word is required on the subject of immortality. I have repeatedly made my confession of faith as to this point. It comprises two statements. There is in man an essence, an infinitesimal of the infinite, as such imperishable. The characteristic attribute of this essence is that it is a life, not a thing, not static, but dynamic; and that its life consists in acting upon the enhancing other life, quickening and being quickened. Hence the spiritual tie, the tie that binds spiritual beings, is inseparable in all eternity.
In connection with this, however, two difficulties must be confronted. Of what avail is it to say that my departed beloved one exists, if I can have no notion of the manner of his or her existence—since pure being, existence, unclothed with the grace of form, the sweet expression of the eye, the tender touch of the hand, is distant and utterly blank? As well non-existence some ardent lover might say. My answer is the same as that of the theist. All the profound theistic thinkers have declared their belief that God, the one individual God, is unknowable, that man can form no notion of what he is in himself, or how he lives, that he can be known only through his effects, which are supposed to be in his case, the creation and government of the world. Similarly we can know the spiritual essence of the departed, which is a part of the eternal life, of the infinite perfection of being, only through its effects. And these effects we must experience. The chief effect is reverence for man, for all men, for oneself, because of this very divine essence that inhabits men. And the other effect, no less uplifting, is the sense of indestructible and insunderable connection with our fellow spirits, which is a positive thing, and does not leave us merely in the ether of pure being, undetermined being.
But here the last objection arises. For suppose a husband married to a woman whom he cannot let go, the light of his life, and who by death is taken from him. Is there not a difficulty in the fact that the spiritual, inseparable connection beyond death, irrespective of death, is a connection with an infinite number of spiritual beings, and not just with this one beloved? And is not love exclusive? Does not love repel the idea of a similar intimacy with any except the one, the counterpart, the excellent friend of the soul, the comrade, the more than comrade, the blessed one? True, but why is there in our earthly life this exclusiveness? Because closeness is repugnant where there is not intimate congeniality, and because this intimate congeniality, the subtle understanding, the subtle adaptation, the harmonious flow of life in the world in which we live, is impossible except between two—nay, if the point be pressed, is never absolutely perfect even between two. But, on the other hand, the very notion of the ideal, eternal community is of a community in which we find infinite congeniality, in which the infinite possible sides of our being seek and find infinite complementation, in which there is no screen hiding us from any of our fellow spirits, in which we know all and are known of all as we essentially are, in which there is a perfect flow of life in life between all.
The Gospel says that in heaven there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage. What I here say of marriage is that it is the earthly symbol of the infinite and universal union of spirits. And what I furthermore say is that the highest good which a man can receive from the woman he loves is that she shall enlighten his eyes to see the infinite relations of being, that she shall be to him the revealer of the eternal world, that she shall appear to him not only as the particular star of his life, but disclose to him the infinite galaxy that envelops her, that she shall hold as it were a flambeau in the present darkness, shedding a light on the eternal scene.