THE opening of the fifth century brought with it changes of transcendent magnitude and importance in Europe. For ages the arms of the South had overflowed the countries of the North, but now the tide of conquest had turned, the North was bearing down on the South, and that haughty Power which had subjected to her sceptre so many tribes and realms, was about to suffer in her turn the miseries of foreign invasion, and taste the bitterness of a barbarian yoke. These changes were preparatory to the erection of a kingdom which was destined to flourish when the victories of Rome had crumbled into dust.

We must here pause in order specially to note the deadlock into which the affairs of the world had come at this great turning-point of its history. Its three leading nations are seen to be unable to advance beyond the point at which they had now arrived. Hence the necessity of bringing new races upon the stage if the human march was to go forward. This extraordinary position of matters must be taken into account and distinctly apprehended if we would intelligently follow the course of succeeding events; and especially we would understand the place of the Scots in general history, and the part they were selected to fulfill in the cause of Christian civilization and constitutional liberty. It is here that we find the key of modern history.

Till this epoch the business of the world had been left in the hands of the Jew, the Greek, and the Roman. These were its three leading nations. The march of all three was towards the same goal, but they approached it on separate lines. The world's work was too onerous to be undertaken by any one of them singly, and accordingly we see it partitioned among the three, in fit correspondence with the age in which each flourished, and the peculiar idiosyncrasy with which each had been endowed.

Each rendered a distinct, and, in truth, brilliant contribution to the world's one work. The Jew came first; for his share of the mighty labour had respect to the foundations. He presented us, although in figure and symbol, with a system of spiritual truth, to which we have been able to make no material addition, and which we accept as by far the mightiest instrumentality for regenerating the race, and building up society. The Greeks followed, furnishing us, by means of their great thinkers, with the laws of thought, and moulding for us, by their great orators, the most melodious of the tongues of earth. Last of all came the Roman. After the spiritual and the intellectual had been supplied by his two predecessors, the Roman added the political. He gathered the scattered races into one empire, and taught them to be obedient to one law. So far the work was done, but done only up to a certain point. At this point the workers found themselves arrested, and farther progress impossible to them; but though they left their great task incomplete, the world never can forget what it owes to those who sowed the first seeds of that rich inheritance of truth and knowledge and liberty which awaits it in the future.

These three workers—the Jew, the Greek, the Roman—had brought the human family to the confine of a new age, but they were unable to conduct them across the boundary. At the portals of this new era they must demit their functions as the pioneers in the human march, and from the van, which they had occupied till now, they must fall into the rear, and leave to others a work which they were no longer able to carry forward. In truth the very fitness of these three nations to do the world's work in the times that preceded the advent of Christianity, made them unfit for doing it in the times that followed that great revolution. All three had been engrossed with the forms of knowledge, rather than with knowledge itself. They had seen and handled only the images or pictures of truth. This in process of time produced an intellectual and moral incapacity to apprehend the verities which lay hid beneath the forms and symbols with which they were versant. The Jew would have given us a religion of the letter, but he never would have given us a religion of the spirit. The Greek would have given us a philosophy of syllogism, but never would he have given us a philosophy of fact. And the Roman would have given us a polity shaped by a power outside society, but not a polity springing from forces acting from within—a polity in accordance with the will of Caesar, but not in harmony with the rights and wishes of humanity. In a word, the Jew never would have evolved Christianity, nor the Greek the Baconian philosophy, nor the Roman constitutional government.

Under this incapacity did all three labour, hence the arrest of the world; nor was it possible for it to resume its march till fresh races had come forward to break through the trammels in which long custom had enchained the old nations. The Jew had lived two thousand years amid ceremonial ordinances and ritualistic observances. These had become to him a second nature: they were to him what the senses of seeing, hearing, and handling are to the soul; and should he be cut off from the means by which he held intercourse with the spiritual world, truth would be placed beyond his reach, and he would account himself condemned to dwell in a world of utter isolation. He would have resisted the change as he would have resisted the destruction of truth itself,—for to the Jew the change was equivalent to the destruction of truth. Had it depended on the Jew, the Temple would have been still standing, the sacrifices of bullocks and rams still burning on its altar, and the sublime doctrines of Christianity still shining dimly through the veils of ceremony and type.

His syllogistic philosophy had as completely enslaved the Greek as his ceremonial religion had fettered the Jew; and the former equally with the latter needed emancipation. The Greek was familiar with but the form of wisdom. His philosophy was a philosophy of ingenious speculations and syllogistic reasonings. It assumed as its basis not the ascertained facts of the natural and moral worlds, but the conceptions or dreams which had their birth in the minds of the great thinkers who stood at the head of their respective schools. Lyrics of melting sweetness, epics of thrilling and tragic grandeur, statues of dazzling beauty, philosophies theoretically perfect, only lacking foundation in nature, the loves, revels, and battles of gods and goddesses that did not exist, celebrated in an empyrean, which was as unreal and imaginary as the divinities with which the Greek imagination had peopled it: all this and much more the Greek could and did give us; but a science with enough of truth and substance in it to form a solid basis for the arts of life, such as those which the modern world has at its service, the Greek could not give us, because he turned away from the quarter where alone the materials for such a science are to be found. He refused to look at nature. Shirking the patient induction of facts, and the careful registration of laws, he set his imagination to work, and that enchantress found for him the materials on which his wondrous intellect worked, and out of which it wove these brilliant but baseless philosophies, which dazzled the world before the advent of Christianity.

And so was it as regards the Roman. He excelled all the nations that had been before him in the order and organization of his empire, but that very organization at last fettered his mind, stereotyped all his ideas in that special department of the world's work which had been committed to him; and henceforward the farther progress of the race under the Roman became impossible. His empire was but a vast political machine for carrying out the will of one man. His scheme of government took no cognizance of individual rights; it did not train the citizen in independence and self-government; it made no provision for gathering up and combining the myriad wishes of the people into one supreme sentiment or will, and making that the governing power. The day of constitutional and representative government was yet afar off. The despotism of Rome was perhaps the most lenient, the most equitable, and the most moral despotism which has ever, either before or since, flourished upon the earth. It was a despotism, nevertheless, and the more its organization was perfected, the more complete and irresistible that despotism became, being but the vehicle for carrying into effect that one will which the empire made supreme over all rights, over all liberties, and over all consciences.The government of Rome, although unrivaled in point of organization among the governments of the ancient world, could, by the very necessity of its constitution, only work downwards,—it never would have elevated the masses into self-government; it never could have given liberty.

Thus all three nations, at the period we speak of, had come into a deadlock. The Jew could not get beyond Moses; the Greek could not advance beyond Plato; and the Roman could not rise above Caesar. The Jew, while the spell of ritualism was upon him, would never have worked his way to the doctrine of Justification by faith. The Greek, bound in the fetters of syllogism, and not daring to stray beyond the narrow confine of his own ratiocination—that unfathomed and inexhaustible well of wisdom in his eyes—never would have given the world the mariner's compass, the printing press, the steam-engine, and the mechanical and chemical arts, which so abundantly minister to the comforts and elegancies of modern life. And the Roman, with the yoke of imperialism on his thoughts, would never have introduced the era of free parliaments and constitutional government. Here, then, the world had halted, and over this same spot we should have found it anchored today had not a new objective revelation been made to all three—to the Jew the Cross; to the Greek, Nature; and to the Roman, Society.

But the old nations were not able to enter the new road now opened to them. The Jew disdained to accept the religion of the Cross. The Greek showed equal contempt for the teaching of Nature. And the Roman refused to make his government conformable to the laws and rights of Society. The enchaining power of habit, the blinding prestige of past achievement, and the pride of high attainment, incapacitated all three for compliance with the great intellectual and spiritual revolution, which was needed if the world was to advance. The Greek and the Roman were no more able than the Jew to become as a little child, that they might enter this new kingdom. The Great Ruler, therefore, made choice of a new race, and into their hands was the world's farther progress committed—a race, which having no past to forget, and no acquisitions to unlearn, might sit down, docile and obedient, at the feet of new and better instructors, and in process of time resume the work at the point where their predecessors had left it.

Such a race was at that hour growing up amid the forests of northern Europe. That race was strong in those very points in which the Greek and Roman peoples were weak. Self-reliance and the passion of individual freedom were powerfully developed in them; and when, as afterwards happened, the Divine graft of Christianity, and the human product of Greek and Roman culture, came to be incorporated with that hardy stock, the result in due course was a race of more varied faculty, and capable of a wider and higher civilization than any nation that had yet flourished on the earth. Hence that great revolution, which divided the ancient from the modern times: a revolution in which the heavens and the earth that had been of old—to use the sublime metaphor in which the Hebrew Seers had foretold that grand transition—were taken down, and the ecclesiastical, the literary and the political firmaments shaken and removed. We behold the world of the Jew, the Greek, and the Roman dissolving in ruins, that the new heavens and the new earth of spiritual Christianity and constitutional liberty may be set up.

Return to Contents