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Modern Society   By: (1819-1910)

Modern Society by Julia Ward Howe

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What means this summons, oh friends! to the groves of Academe? I heard, in the distance, the measured tread of Philosophy. I mused: "How grave and deliberate is she! How she matches thought with thought! How patiently she questions inference and conclusion! No irrelevance, no empty ballooning, is allowed in that Concord school. Nothing frivolous need apply there for admission." And lo! in the midst of this severe entertainment an interlude is called for in the great theatre. The stage manager says, "Ring up Puck. Wanted, an Ariel." And no Shakespeare being at hand, I, of the sex much reproved for never having produced one, am invited to fly hither as well as my age and infirmities will allow, and to represent to you that airy presence whose folly, seen from the clouds, is wisdom; that presence which, changing with the changes of the year and of the day, may yet sing, equally with the steadfast stars and systematic planets,

"The hand that made me is divine."

Modern society, concerning which you have bid me discourse to you, is this tricksy spirit, many featured and many gestured, coming in a questionable shape, and bringing with it airs from heaven and blasts from hell. I have spoken to it, and it has shown me my father's ghost. How shall I speak of it, and tell you what it has taught me? You must think my alembic a nice one indeed, since you bid me to the analysis of those subtle and finely mingled forces. You have sent for me, perhaps, to receive a lesson instead of giving one. You may intend that, having tried and failed in this task, I shall learn, for the future, the difficult lesson of holding my peace. For so benevolent, so disinterested an intention, I may have more occasion to thank you beforehand, than you shall find to thank me, having heard me.

But, since a text is supposed to make it sure that the sermon shall have in it one good sentence, let me take for my text a saying of the philosopher Kant, who, in one of his treatises, rests much upon the distinction to be made between logical and real or substantial opposition. According to him, a logical opposition is brought in view when one attribute of a certain thing is at once affirmed and denied. The statement of a body which should be at once stationary and in motion would imply such a contradiction, of which the result will be nihil negativum irrepræsentabile .

A real or substantial opposition is found where two contradictory predicates are recognized as coexistent in the same subject. A body impelled in one direction by a given force, and in another by its opposite, is easily cogitable. One force neutralizes the other, but the result is something, viz., rest. Let us keep in mind this distinction between opposites which exclude each other, and opposites which can coexist, while we glance at the contradictions of all society, ancient as well as modern.

How self contradictory, in the first place, is the nature of man! How sociable he is! also how unsociable! We have among animals the gregarious and the solitary. But man is of all animals at once the most gregarious and the most solitary. This is the first and most universal contradiction, that of which you find at least the indication in every individual. But let us look for a moment at the contrasts which make one individual so unlike to another. We sometimes find it hard to believe the saying that God hath made of one blood all the nations of the earth. This in view of the contrast between savage and civilized nations, or between nations whose habits and beliefs differ one from the other. In the same race, in the same family also, we shall find the unlikeness which seems to set the bond of nature at defiance... Continue reading book >>

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