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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Recurrent Tendency of Human Life and Thought

By John Adams Dix (1798–1879)

[Born in Boscawen, N. H., 1798. Died in New York, N. Y., 1879. Address on the “Social and Political Evils of the Day.” New York, 3 January, 1876.—Memoirs. 1883.]

WITH all these physical improvements it is doubtful whether our acquaintance with the agencies which enter into and govern our inner life have made any sensible progress from the period to which our earliest historical records reach. Some conception of the stupendous problem of human life may be gathered from the consideration that, during an existence not more extended than my own, at least two thousand millions of people have come into the world and gone out of it. It may be fairly questioned whether there can be found among the millions who are actors in the great social drama any lives which have not had their counterpart in other times, with little variation in the detail, and whether any sentiment or thought can be expressed now which has not been expressed heretofore. So far as the memorials of the past extend, they show that the outpourings of feeling and passion which were heard ages ago on the shores of the Ganges, the banks of the Nile, the Tiber, the Arno, and the Avon, and by the still waters of Siloam, are the same as those which are heard now, in the varied forms of speech, wherever the human intellect rises above the level of mere animal necessities. It is thus in eras of civilization far distant from each other that mind is linked to mind and heart to heart by those mysterious bonds of sympathy which, in spite of the throes of intervening ages, still stretch unbroken across the chasm where empire after empire has gone down into the abyss beneath.

No one who has traced the current of human thought from the earliest sources revealed to us down to the present time can fail to be struck with its uniformity. Indeed, the writers in succeeding ages seem, at first glance, to be but a succession of plagiarists; and yet they are evidently, on a closer view, unconscious imitators—constrained to be so, because the current of thought in all that relates to the abstract runs forever in the same channels. Thus the utterances of the present are little else than echoes of the voices of the past. There are passages in Cicero almost word for word like others in the Psalms of David, and in St. Paul’s epistles word for word like others in the works of Cicero. In the great folio of Erasmus, of two thousand pages, on the adages of all ages and nations, you may trace to the ancient Israelites, and to the Greeks and Romans, almost every saying or proverb which is current among us to-day. Even the “almighty dollar” of Washington Irving has its equivalent in the regina pecunia of Horace. The ancient philosophers, groping without the light of the Gospel for great moral truths, were sometimes successful in grasping them amid the spiritual darkness in which they were involved, manifesting unmistakably that their minds were illumined by rays of the Eternal Essence which created and controls the universe. It is a remarkable fact that the precept which lies at the foundation of the Christian code—“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”—was proclaimed as a moral axiom centuries before the advent of the Saviour, and that he did not disdain to adopt it, stamping it with divine authority, and prescribing it for the government of mankind. If we are to contend successfully against the social and political evils which beset us, it must be through a better observance of this and his other kindred commands. In hoc signo—in this sign only can we hope to conquer. The two altars of our religious and political faith should stand side by side. Then may we trust that their fires will ascend in a common flame to heaven, and call down the blessings of prosperity and peace upon our beloved country.