The Wrack of the Storm Part 6

What was to be the issue of this war? Here begins the lesson which it were well to study thoroughly. It would seem indeed as if, with the first encounters in that conflict, as in our own, the inexplicable will that governs nations was favourable to the less civilized; and in fact Lacedaemon gained the upper hand, at least temporarily and sufficiently to abuse her victory to such a degree that she soon lost its fruits.

But Athens held the evil will in check for seven-and-twenty years; for twenty-seven summers and twenty-seven winters, to use Thucydides'

reckoning, she proved to us that it is possible, in defiance of probability, to fight against what seems written in the book of heaven and hell. Nay more, at a time when Sparta, whose sole industry, whose sole training, whose only reason for existence and whose only ideal was war, was hugging the thought of crushing in a few weeks, under the weight of her formidable hoplites, a frivolous, careless and ill-organized city, Athens, notwithstanding the treacherous blow which fate dealt her by sending a plague that carried off a third of her civil population and a quarter of her army, Athens for seventeen years definitely held victory in her grasp.

During this period, she more than once had Lacedaemon at her mercy and did not begin to descend the stony path of ruin and defeat until after the disastrous expedition to Sicily, in which, carried away by her rhetoricians and bitten with inconceivable folly, she hurled all her fleet, all her soldiers and all her wealth into a remote, unprofitable, unknown and desperate adventure. She resisted the decline of her fortunes for yet another ten years, heaping up her sins against wisdom and simple common sense and with her own hands drawing tighter the knot that was to strangle her, as though to show us that destiny is for the most part but our own madness and that what we call unavoidable fatality has its root only in mistakes that might easily be avoided.


To point this moral was again not my real object. In these days when we have so many sorrows to assuage and so many deaths to honour, I wished merely to recall a page written over two thousand years ago, to the glory of the Athenian heroes who fell for their country in the first battles of that war. According to the custom of the Greeks, the bones of the dead that had been burnt on the battlefield were solemnly brought back to Athens at the end of the year; and the people chose the greatest speaker in the city to deliver the funeral oration.

This honour fell to Pericles, son of Xanthippus, the Pericles of the golden age of human beauty. After pronouncing a well-merited and magnificent eulogium on the Athenian nation and institutions, he concluded with the following words:

"Indeed, if I have dwelt at some length upon the character of our country, it has been to show that our stake in the struggle is not the same as theirs who have no such blessing to lose and also that the panegyric of the men over whom I am now speaking might be by definite proofs established.

That panegyric is now in a great measure complete; for the Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her, men whose fame, unlike that of most Hellenes, will be found to be only commensurate with their deserts. And, if a test of worth be wanted, it is to be found in their closing scene; and this not only in the cases in which it set the final seal upon their merit, but also in those in which it gave the first intimation of their having any. For there is justice in the claim that steadfastness in his country's battles should be as a cloak to cover a man's other imperfections, since the good action has blotted out the bad and his merit as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual. But none of these allowed either wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, holding that vengeance upon their enemies was more to be desired than any personal blessings and reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they joyfully determined to accept the risk, to make sure of their vengeance and to let their wishes wait; and, while committing to hope the uncertainty of final success, in the business before them they thought fit to act boldly and trust in themselves. Thus choosing to die resisting rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour, but met danger face to face and, after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, escaped not from their fear but from their glory.

"So died these men as became Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier issue. And, not contented with ideas derived only from words of the advantages which are bound up with the defence of your country, though these would furnish a valuable text to a speaker even before an audience so alive to them as the present, you must yourselves realize the power of Athens and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then, when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty and a keen feeling of honour in action that men were enabled to win all this and that no personal failure in an enterprise could make them consent to deprive their country of their valour, but they laid it at her feet as the most glorious contribution that they could offer. For by this offering of their lives made in common by them all they each of them individually received that renown which never grows old and, for a sepulchre, not so much that in which their bones have been deposited, but that noblest of shrines wherein their glory is laid up to be eternally remembered upon every occasion on which deed or story shall call for its commemoration. For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart. These take as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valour, never decline the dangers of war. For it is not the miserable that would most justly be unsparing of their lives: these have nothing to hope for; it is rather they to whom continued life may bring reverses as yet unknown and to whom a fall, if it came, would be most tremendous in its consequences. And surely, to a man of spirit, the degradation of cowardice must be immeasurably more grievous than the unfelt death which strikes him in the midst of his strength and patriotism!

"Comfort, therefore, not condolence, is what I have to offer to the parents of the dead who may be here. Numberless are the chances to which, as they know, the life of man is subject; but fortunate indeed are they who draw for their lot a death so glorious as that which has caused your mourning and to whom life has been so exactly measured as to terminate in the happiness in which it has been passed.

Still I know that this is a hard saying, especially when those are in question of whom you will be constantly reminded by seeing in the homes of others blessings of which once you also boasted; for grief is felt not so much for the want of what we have never known as for the loss of that to which we have been long accustomed. Yet you who are still of an age to beget children must bear up in the hope of having others in their stead: not only will they help you to forget those whom you have lost, but they will be to the state at once a reinforcement and a security; for never can a fair or just policy be expected of the citizen who does not, like his fellows, bring to the decision the interests and apprehensions of a father. While those of you who have passed your prime must congratulate yourselves with the thought that the best part of your life was fortunate and that the brief span that remains will be cheered by the fame of the departed. For it is only the love of honour that never grows old; and honour it is, not gain, as some would have it, that rejoices the heart of age and helplessness.

"And, now that you have brought to a close your lamentations for your relatives, you may depart."

These words spoken twenty-three centuries ago ring in our hearts as though they were uttered yesterday. They celebrate our dead better than could any eloquence of ours, however poignant it might be. Let us bow before their paramount beauty and before the great people that could applaud and understand.


[Footnote 5: This and the later passage from Pericles' funeral oration I have quoted from the late Richard Crawley's admirable translation of Thucydides' _Peloponnesian War_, now published in the _Temple Classics_.--A. T. de M.]





When we behold the terrible loss of so many young lives, when we see so many incarnations of physical and moral vigour, of intellect and of glorious promise pitilessly cut off in their first flower, we are on the verge of despair. Never before have the fairest energies and aspirations of men been flung recklessly and incessantly into an abyss whence comes no sound or answer. Never since it came into existence has humanity squandered its treasure, its substance and its prospects so lavishly. For more than twelve months, on every battlefield, where the bravest, the truest, the most ardent and self-sacrificing are necessarily the first to die and where the less courageous, the less generous, the weak, the ailing, in a word the less desirable, alone possess some chance of escaping the carnage, for over twelve months a sort of monstrous inverse selection has been in operation, one which seems to be deliberately seeking the downfall of the human race. And we wonder uneasily what the state of the world will be after the great trial and what will be left of it and what will be the future of this stunted race, shorn of all the best and noblest part of it.

The problem is certainly one of the darkest that have ever vexed the minds of men. It contains a material truth before which we remain defenceless; and, if we accept it as it stands, we can discover no remedy for the evil that threatens us. But material and tangible truths are never anything but a more or less salient angle of greater and deeper-lying truths. And, on the other hand, mankind appears to be such a necessary and indestructible force of nature that it has always, hitherto, not only survived the most desperate ordeals, but succeeded in benefiting by them and emerging greater and stronger than before.


We know that peace is better than war; it were madness to compare the two. We know that, if this cataclysm let loose by an act of unutterable folly had not come upon the world, mankind would doubtless have reached ere long a zenith of wonderful achievement whose manifestations it is impossible to foreshadow. We know that, if a third or a fourth part of the fabulous sums expended on extermination and destruction had been devoted to works of peace, all the iniquities that poison the air we breathe would have been triumphantly redressed and that the social question, the one great question, that matter of life and death which justice demands that posterity should face, would have found its definite solution, once and for all, in a happiness which now perhaps even our sons and grandsons will not realize. We know that the disappearance of two or three million young existences, cut down when they were on the point of bearing fruit, will leave in history a void that will not be easily filled, even as we know that among those dead were mighty intellects, treasures of genius which will not come back again and which contained inventions and discoveries that will now perhaps be lost to us for centuries. We know that we shall never grasp the consequences of this thrusting back of progress and of this unprecedented devastation. But, granting all this, it is a good thing to recover our balance and stand upon our feet. There is no irreparable loss. Everything is transformed, nothing perishes and that which seems to be hurled into destruction is not destroyed at all. Our moral world, even as our physical world, is a vast but hermetically sealed sphere, whence naught can issue, whence naught can fall, to be dissolved in space. All that exists, all that comes into being upon this earth remains there and bears fruit; and the most appalling wastage is but material or spiritual riches flung away for an instant, to fall to the ground again in a new form. There is no escape or leakage, no filtering through cracks, no missing the mark, not even waste or neglect. All this heroism poured out on every side does not leave our planet; and the reason why the courage of our fighters seems so general and yet so extraordinary is that all the might of the dead has passed into the survivors. All those forces of wisdom, patience, honour and self-sacrifice which increase day by day and which we ourselves, who are far from the field of danger, feel rising within us without knowing whence they come are nothing but the souls of the heroes gathered and absorbed by our own souls.


It is well at times to contemplate invisible things as though we saw them with our eyes. This was the aim of all the great religions, when they represented under forms appropriate to the civilization of their day, the latent, deep, instinctive, general and essential truths which are the guiding principles of mankind. All have felt and recognized that loftiest of all truths, the communion of the living and the dead, and have given it various names designating the same mysterious verity: the Christians know it as revival of merit, the Buddhists as reincarnation, or transmigration of souls, and the Japanese as Shintoism, or ancestor-worship. The last are more fully convinced than any other nation that the dead do not cease to live and that they direct all our actions, are exalted by our virtues and become gods.

Lafcadio Hearn, the writer who has most closely studied and understood that wonderful ancestor-worship, says:

"One of the surprises of our future will certainly be a return to beliefs and ideas long ago abandoned upon the mere assumption that they contained no truth--beliefs still called barbarous, pagan, mediaeval, by those who condemn them out of traditional habit. Year after year the researches of science afford us new proof that the savage, the barbarian, the idolater, the monk, each and all have arrived, by different paths, as near to some point of eternal truth as any thinker of the nineteenth century. We are now learning also, that the theories of the astrologers and of the alchemists were but partially, not totally, wrong. We have reason even to suppose that no dream of the invisible world has ever been dreamed, that no hypothesis of the unseen has ever been imagined--which future science will not prove to have contained some germ of reality."[6]

There are many things which might be added to these lines, notably all that the most recent of our sciences, metapsychics, is engaged in discovering with regard to the miraculous faculties of our subconsciousness.

But, to return more directly to what we were saying, was it not observed that, after the great battles of the Napoleonic era, the birth-rate increased in an extraordinary manner, as though the lives suddenly cut short in their prime were not really dead and were eager to be back again in our midst and complete their career? If we could follow with our eyes all that is happening in the spiritual world that rises above us on every side, we should no doubt see that it is the same with the moral force that seems to be lost on the field of slaughter. It knows where to go, it knows its goal, it does not hesitate. All that our wonderful dead relinquish they bequeath to us; and when they die for us, they leave us their lives not in any strained metaphorical sense, but in a very real and direct way. Virtue goes out of every man who falls while performing a deed of glory; and that virtue drops down upon us; and nothing of him is lost and nothing evaporates in the shock of a premature end. He gives us in one solitary and mighty stroke what he would have given us in a long life of duty and love. Death does not injure life; it is powerless against it. Life's aggregate never changes. What death takes from those who fall enters into those who are left standing. The number of lamps grows less, but the flame rises higher. Death is in no wise the gainer so long as there are living men. The more it exercises its ravages, the more it increases the intensity of that which it cannot touch; the more it pursues its phantom victories, the better does it prove to us that man will end by conquering death.


[Footnote 6: _Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Life_, chapter xiv., "Some thoughts about Ancestor-Worship."]





Those who die for their country should not be numbered with the dead.

We must call them by another name. They have nothing in common with those who end in their beds a life that is worn out, a life almost always too long and often useless. Death, which every elsewhere is but the object of fear and horror, bringing naught but nothingness and despair, this death, on the field of battle, in the clash of glory, becomes more gracious than birth and exhales a beauty greater than that of love. No life will ever give what their youth is offering us, that youth which gives in one moment the days and the years that lay before it. There is no sacrifice to be compared with that which they have made; for which reason there is no glory that can soar so high as theirs, no gratitude that can surpass the gratitude which we owe them. They have not only a right to the foremost place in our memories: they have a right to all our memories and to everything that we are, since we exist only through them.


And now it is in us that their life, so suddenly cut short, must resume its course. Whatever be our faith and whatever the God whom it adores, one thing is almost certain and, in spite of all appearances, is daily becoming more certain: it is that death and life are commingled; the dead and the living alike are but moments, hardly dissimilar, of a single and infinite existence and members of one immortal family. They are not beneath the earth, in the depths of their tombs; they lie deep in our hearts, where all that they once were will continue to live to to act; and they live in us even as we die in them. They see us, they understand us more nearly than when they were in our arms; let us then keep a watch upon ourselves, so that they witness no actions and hear no words but words and actions that shall be worthy of them.

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