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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsInquiries And Opinions - The Supreme Leaders
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Inquiries And Opinions - The Supreme Leaders Post by :add2it Category :Nonfictions Author :Brander Matthews Date :May 2012 Read :1562

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Inquiries And Opinions - The Supreme Leaders

In the fading annals of French Romanticism it is recorded that at the first performance of an early play of the elder Dumas at the Odeon, a band of enthusiasts, as misguided as they were youthful, were so completely carried away that they formed a ring and danced in derision around a bust of Racine which adorned that theater, declaring boisterously that the elder dramatist was disgraced and disestablished: _'Enfonce Racine!'_

This puerile exploit took place not fourscore years ago, and already has this play of Dumas disappeared beneath the wave of oblivion, its very name being recalled only by special students of the history of the French stage, while the Comedie-Francaise continues, year in and year out, to act the best of Racine's tragedies, now nearly two centuries and a half since they were first performed.

Again, in the records of the British theater of the eighteenth century, we find mention of a countryman of John Home, who attended the first performance of the reverend author's 'Douglas.' The play so worked upon the feelings of this perfervid Scot that he was forced to cry out triumphantly: "Whaur's your Wully Shakspere noo?"

And yet this Scottish masterpiece failed to establish itself finally on the stage; and it has long since past out of men's memories, leaving behind it only a quotation or two and a speech for boys to spout. So in every age the disinterested observer can take note of the rise and fall of some unlucky author or artist, painter or poet, widely and loudly proclaimed as a genius, only to be soon forgotten, often in his own generation. He may have soared aloft for a brief moment with starry scintillations, like a rocket, only at last to come down like the stick, empty and unnoticed.

The echoes of the old battle of the Ancients and Moderns have not died away, even yet; and there is never a time when some ardent disciple is not insisting that his immediate master must be admitted as one of the immortals, and when some shrill youth is not ready to make room for the new-comer by ousting any number of the consecrated chiefs of art. Now and again, of course, the claim is allowed; the late arrival is made welcome in the Pantheon; and there is a new planet on high. But most of those who are urged for this celestial promotion prove to be mere shooting-stars at best, vanishing into space before there is opportunity to examine their spectrum and to compare it with that of the older orbs which have made the sky glorious thru the long centuries.

It is only by comparison with these fixt stars that we can measure the light of any new luminary which aspires to their lofty elevation. It is only by keeping our gaze full upon them that we may hope to come to an understanding of their immeasurable preeminence. Taine has told us that "there are four men in the world of art and of literature exalted above all others, and to such a degree as to seem to belong to another race--namely, Dante, Shakspere, Beethoven, and Michelangelo. No profound knowledge, no full possession of all the resources of art, no fertility of imagination, no originality of intellect, sufficed to secure them this position, for these they all had. These, moreover, are of secondary importance; that which elevated them to this rank is their soul."

Here we have four great lights for us to steer by when we are storm-driven on the changing sea of contemporary opinion and contemporary prejudice; and by their aid we may hope to win safety in a harbor of refuge.

Perhaps it is a praiseworthy striving for a permanent standard of value which accounts for the many attempts to draw up lists of the Hundred Best Books and of the Hundred Best Pictures. It may be admitted at once that these lists, however inadequate they must be, and however unsatisfactory in themselves, may have a humble utility of their own as a first aid to the ignorant. At least, they may serve to remind a man lost in a maze amid the clatter and the clutter of our own time, that after all this century of ours is the heir of the ages, and that it is for us to profit by the best that the past has bequeathed to us. Even the most expertly selected list could do little more than this.

Nevertheless these attempts, after all, cannot fail to be more or less misleading, since the best books and the best pictures do not number exactly a hundred. Nor can there be any assured certainty in the selection, since no two of those most competent to make the choice would be likely to agree on more than half of the masterpieces they would include.

The final and fatal defect in all these lists is that they seek to single out an arbitrary number of works of the highest distinction, instead of trying to find out the few men of supreme genius who were actually the makers of acknowledged masterpieces. It is of no consequence whether we hold that 'Hamlet' or 'Macbeth' is the most splendid example of Shakspere's surpassing endowment, or whether we consider the 'Fourth Symphony' or the 'Seventh' the completest expression of Beethoven's mastery of music. What it is of consequence for us to recognize and to grasp effectually is that Shakspere and Beethoven are two of the indisputable chiefs, each in his own sphere. What it imports us to realize is that there is in every art a little group of supreme leaders; they may be two or three only; they may be half a dozen, or, at the most, half a score; but they stand in the forefront, and their supremacy is inexpugnable for all time.

Every one recognizes to-day that "certain poets like Dante and Shakspere, certain composers like Beethoven and Mozart, hold the foremost place in their art." So Taine insisted, adding that this foremost place is also "accorded to Goethe, among the writers of our century; to Rembrandt among the Dutch painters; to Titian among the Venetians." And then Taine asserted also that "three artists of the Italian renascence, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, rise, by unanimous consent, far above all others."

No doubt this list of supreme leaders in the arts is unduly scanted; but there is wisdom in Taine's parsimony of praise. The great names he has here selected for signal eulogy are those whose appeal is universal and whose fame far transcends the boundaries of any single race.

It may have been from Sainte-Beuve that Taine inherited his catholicity of taste and his elevation of judgment; and it was due to the influence of Sainte-Beuve also that Matthew Arnold attained to a breadth of vision denied to most other British critics. Arnold invited us to "conceive of the whole group of civilized nations as being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation whose members have a due knowledge both of the past out of which they all proceed, and of one another." He went on to suggest that for any artist or poet "to be recognized by the verdict of such a confederation as a master is indeed glory, a glory which it would be difficult to rate too highly. For what could be more beneficent, more salutary? The world is forwarded by having its attention fixt on the best things; and here is a tribunal, free from all suspicion of national and provincial partiality, putting a stamp on the best things and recommending them for general honor and acceptance." Then he added the shrewd suggestion that there would be direct advantage to each race in seeing which of its own great men had been promoted to the little group of supreme leaders, since "a nation is furthered by recognition of its real gifts and successes; it is encouraged to develop them further."

Who, then, are the supreme leaders in the several departments of human endeavor? By common consent of mankind who are the supreme soldiers, the supreme painters, the supreme poets? To attempt to name them is as difficult as it is dangerous; but the effort itself may be profitable, even if the ultimate result is not wholly satisfactory. To undertake this is not to revive the puerile debate as to whether Washington or Napoleon was the greater man; rather it is a frank admission that both were preeminent, with the further inquiry as to those others who may have achieved a supremacy commensurate with theirs. To seek out these indisputable masters is not to imitate the vain desire of the pedagog to give marks to the several geniuses, and to grade the greatest of men as if they were school-boys. There is no pedantry in striving to ascertain the list of the lonely few whom the assembled nations are all willing now to greet as the assured masters of the several arts.

The selection made by a single race or by a single century is not likely to be widely or permanently acceptable. Long years ago the Italians were wont to speak of the Four Poets, _quattro poete_, meaning thereby Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso. But this was a choice far too local and far too narrow. Of these four Italian poets perhaps only the severe Florentine has won his way outside of the boundaries of the language he did so much to ennoble,--altho it may be admitted that the gentle Petrarch had also for a century a wide influence on the lyrists of other tongues.

Lowell had a more cosmopolitan outlook on literature, when he discust 'The Five Indispensable Authors'--Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Shakspere, and Goethe. "Their universal and perennial application to our consciousness and our experience accounts for their permanence and insures their immortality." We may admit that all five of the authors designated by Lowell are truly indispensable, just as we must accept also the incomparable position of the four leaders in the several arts whom Taine set apart in lonely elevation. But both Taine's list and Lowell's we feel to be too brief. The French critic had ranged thru every realm of art to discover finally that the incontestable masters were four and four only. The American critic, altho he limited himself to the single art of literature, dealt with it at large, not distinguishing between the poets and the masters of prose.

If we strike out of Lowell's list the single name of Cervantes, who was a poet only in a special and arbitrary sense, we shall have left the names of the four poets whose fame is world-wide--Homer, Dante, Shakspere, Goethe--the only poets whose supremacy is admitted thruout our modern civilization.

To these Matthew Arnold insisted on adjoining a fifth, Milton; and we who speak the same tongue would gladly enroll the blind singer with the other four. Indeed, we might even hold Milton to be securer in this place than Goethe, who has not yet been a hundred years in his grave. But if we ask the verdict of "the whole group of civilized nations," which Matthew Arnold himself impaneled as "free from all suspicion of national and provincial partiality," we are met with the doubt whether Milton has established himself among the races that inherit the Latin tradition as securely as Dante has been accepted by the peoples of Teutonic stock. However high our own appreciation of Milton may be, the cosmopolitan verdict might not include him among the supreme poets. Indeed, we may doubt whether Vergil might not have more votes than Milton, when the struck jury is polled.

Here, perhaps, we may find our profit in applying a test suggested by Lowell--the test of imitability. "No poet of the first class has ever left a school, because his imagination is incommunicable," whereas "the secondary intellect seeks for excitement in expression, and stimulates itself into mannerism." The greater geniuses may have influenced those who came after them by their thoughts, by what they have contributed to the sum of human knowledge; but "they have not infected contemporaries or followers with mannerism." Then Lowell points out that "Dante, Shakspere, and Goethe, left no heirs either to the form or mode of their expression."

It was in his lecture on Emerson that Matthew Arnold asked: "Who are the great men of letters?"--meaning thereby the masters of prose. "They are men like Cicero, Plato, Bacon, Pascal, Swift, Voltaire--writers with, in the first place, a genius and instinct for style, writers whose prose is by a kind of native necessity true and sound." The British critic added that: "It is a curious thing, that quality of style, which marks the great writer, the born man of letters. It resides in the whole tissue of his work, and of his work regarded as a composition for literary purposes." The six masters of prose whom Arnold chose have all of them this quality of style; and their prose is true and sound. Altho this list of six was selected by an Englishman, and altho it contains the names of two Englishmen, it would be acceptable, one may venture to believe, to the cosmopolitan tribunal, to the heirs of the Latin tradition and to the peoples of the Teutonic stock. It may lack the completeness and the finality of the limitation of the supreme poets to four; but it must be taken as a not unsuccessful attempt to select the supreme prose-writers.

Arnold excluded Emerson from the class of "great men of letters" because the American philosopher had not the instinct for style, and because his prose was not always true and sound. Lowell, in a letter to a friend, protested against this, suggesting that the Oxford critic was like Renan in that he was apt to think "the _super_fine as good as the fine, or better even than that." Yet we may agree with the lecturer in holding that Emerson was rather to be ranked with Marcus Aurelius as "the friend of those who would live in the spirit," than to be classed with Cicero and with Swift, obviously inferior in elevation and in aim, but both of them born men of letters.

In like manner we must strike out the name of Burke from among the great orators. A political philosopher he was of keenest insight and of unfailing eloquence; but he was a poor speaker, and he did not often rivet the attention of the audiences he addrest. This is why he cannot establish a claim to inclusion among the supreme orators. Perhaps such a claim could be made good before the cosmopolitan tribunal by two speakers only, both belonging far back in the history of our civilization--Demosthenes and Cicero. Both revealed the needful double qualifications of the real orator, who shall hold his hearers in the hollow of his hand while he is speaking, bending them to his will and swaying them to the course he advocates, while the words he spoke then must survive now for our delight in their style and in their substance, a delight independent of the occasion of their utterance.

Others there are, no doubt, who were also possest of this double gift. The French, for instance, might well urge the claim of Bossuet to be raised to the same pinnacle; but the English and the Germans have not yielded to the spell of his majestic periods. Perhaps we here in the United States should not be extravagant if we set up also a claim for Daniel Webster; but, however firm our faith, and however solid our justification, we should be met with a silent stare from the French and the Italians and the Spaniards, who might fail even to recognize Webster's name. Demosthenes and Cicero alone would be hailed as the supreme orators thruout the whole group of civilized nations.

There is close kinship between oratory and history; and as the supreme orators are only two, one a Greek and the other a Roman, so the supreme historians, however tightly we may restrict the selection, will include a Greek, Thucydides, and a Roman, Tacitus. With them, and not inferior, stands Gibbon; and perhaps these three, Thucydides, Tacitus, and Gibbon, are all about whom there would be nowhere any dispute. But there is need to note that Taine held Macaulay to be in no wise inferior to Gibbon. Again, it may be well to mention also that an American authority insists on elevating Voltaire also, as the earliest of the modern masters of history.

So we find that the supreme historians are three at the least, and at most four or five, just as the supreme poets are four, the supreme masters of prose are perhaps six, and the supreme orators are only two. And if we apply the same standards, if we disregard personal and provincial and national predilections and preferences, if we try to take the verdict of the cosmopolitan tribunal, we should find that the supreme dramatists are but three--Sophocles, Shakspere, and Moliere. These three only were at once playwrights of contemporary popularity, masters of dramaturgic craftsmanship, creators of character independent of their own personality, makers of plays which deal with themes of an import at once permanent and universal, and poets also, each with his own philosophy of life.

Others there are who unite some of these qualifications, but none who can make good a right to be ranked with the mighty three. It is true that the power of AEschylus is as undeniable as the pathos of Euripides; but it is always the clear-eyed Sophocles whom Aristotle accepted as the master of all who strive for distinction in the theater. And Aristophanes, with all his exuberance of humor and all his lyric elevation, is, after all, too local and too temporary to be ranked with the broad-minded Moliere. So also Calderon, whom the polemic Schlegel wisht to promote to an equality with the very greatest of dramatic poets, is too careless of form and too medieval in spirit. Promotion must also be denied, for one reason or another, to Ben Jonson, to Corneille and Racine, to Schiller, to Alfieri, and to Victor Hugo. However ardently their claims may be urged by their compatriots, the international tribunal would refuse to admit any one of them to an equality with Sophocles, Shakspere, and Moliere, the greatest of the Greeks, the greatest of the English, the greatest of the French, the three races that have excelled in the arts of the theater.

Even tho no German can sustain a claim to supremacy in the drama, it is to the Germans that the consent of the whole world now awards the incontestable supremacy in the sister art of music. To the race that gave birth to Bach and Beethoven, to Mozart and Schubert and Wagner, it matters little whether the chiefs of music number two only, or whether they may be so many as four or five. Indeed, it may be admitted at once that the list would need to be widely extended before it would include the name of any composer who was not a scion of the Teutonic stock.

There is a certain significance, also, in the probability that the outsider who could best justify a claim for inclusion would be a Russian rather than an Italian or a Frenchman. And this estimate, it may be well to confess, is not personal to the present writer, who has no skill in music and scant acquaintance with its intricacies; it is the outcome of a disinterested endeavor to discover the consensus of expert opinion, free from any racial bias.

But the northern races who excel in the art of the musician seem to be inferior to the southern in the arts of the painter and of the sculptor,--more particularly in the latter. The supreme sculptors are apparently two or three: Phidias and Michelangelo, beyond all question, and with them probably we ought also to place Donatello. Of Praxiteles we know too little. Of most other artists in marble and in bronze we know too much, however fine their occasional achievements,--Verrocchio's 'Colleoni,' for example. They do not sustain themselves at the lofty level on which Michelangelo moves with certainty and ease--"the greatest of known artists," so Mr. Lafarge has ventured to acclaim him; and just as Shakspere is unsurpassed as a poet and also as a playwright, just as Cicero takes a foremost place as an orator and also as a writer of prose, so Michelangelo is mighty as a sculptor, as an architect, and as a painter.

As a painter he has more rivals than as a sculptor. We may limit the supreme masters of the plastic art to two, or to three at the most; but the supreme masters of the pictorial art are twice three, at the very least. By the side of Michelangelo there is Raphael, also an Italian; and has any one really a right to exclude Titian from their fellowship? Then there are Velasquez, the Spaniard, and Duerer, the German. And farther north in the Netherlands, there are Rembrandt and Rubens; and ought not Vandyke to be allowed to stand aloft with them? Six, at the lowest count, and eight by the more liberal estimate, are the men who have gone to the forefront in the art of the brush, half of them from the north and half of them from the south; and among them all not one who had English for his native speech, and not one whose mother-tongue was French. Indeed, at least one German, Holbein, and two or three more Italians would be admitted within the sacred enclosure before any Frenchman or any Englishman could have free entry.

Those who speak French and those who speak English fare no better when we turn from the arts of peace to the art of war. Every race takes pride in the renown of the far-sighted and swift-striking commanders who have led it to victory, and every race is prone to over-estimate the military genius of its own successful soldiers. Here in the United States we seek to set up Washington and Grant and Lee as the rivals of the most gifted warriors that the old world has to show in all the long centuries of its incessant warfare; and in Great Britain our kin across the sea are led by local loyalty to do the same disservice to Marlborough and Wellington. But if we were to search the countless treatises on battles and campaigns written in every modern language, we should soon be forced to record that there were five men, and only five, whom the experts of every race united in singling out. In any list of the ten greatest soldiers, prepared in any country in the world, these five names would surely appear, even tho the other names on the several lists might be those of merely national heroes. The five international masters of war are Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Frederick, and Napoleon.

Napoleon, altho he rose to be Emperor of the French, was a Corsican by birth and an Italian by descent. The French have ever battled bravely for military glory; but they have not brought forth one of the supreme soldiers. The race that speaks English has done its full share of fighting on land and on sea, but it is on the blue water that it can give the best account of itself. The supreme leaders in war at sea worthy to be set by the side of the five supreme leaders in war on land are two at the very utmost; and probably an international tribunal would hold that Nelson alone was to be classed with Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Frederick, and Napoleon. But it is the opinion of the foremost living expert on sea-power that Farragut deserves to be placed not far distant from Nelson, and that the gap which separates the American sailor from the British is smaller than that which stretches between Farragut and the third claimant, whoever he may be and of whatever nationality.

Turning from the art of war and from the arts of peace to the sciences whereon all the arts are based, we find that the English and the French are richly represented. The supreme leaders in science, the men whose discoveries have been fecundating and fundamental, seem to be at least seven--Euclid, Archimedes, Copernicus, Newton, Laplace, Lavoisier, and Darwin. This list might well be larger; it could not be less; and no matter how it might be extended it would include these seven. None of them was merely an inventor of specific devices; all of them were discoverers of essential principles, and thereby contributors to the advancement of civilization and to man's mastery of knowledge.

It would be interesting, as it would be instructive, if we could also enumerate the supreme leaders in religion; but this is a field in which prejudice is too violent ever to permit a serene view, and there is no hoping for an international verdict. Nor would it be possible to find any agreement as to the supreme statesmen, leaders of men and makers of nations. That Washington could not be excluded from any choice, however limited, we may rest assured; but who or how many might really deserve to be set beside him, we can only guess. National pride is as potent as religious feeling, and there is no likelihood that rival patriotisms can ever be reconciled.

A comparison of the several lists will serve to show the field in which each of the great races of the world has revealed its native qualities; and, as Matthew Arnold suggested, this is most useful, since a nation is benefitted "by recognition of its real gifts and successes; it is encouraged to develop them further."

And a consideration also of the character of each of the men whose names have here been set on high as the supreme leaders of humanity will make clear once more what is often clouded and obscured--the fact that the true genius is never an erratic creature, irregular and irresponsible, clamoring for indulgence and appealing for pity. He is always strong and sane and wholesome. Clear-eyed and broad-minded, he has self-control and common-sense.

(1905.)

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