Chapter X: Reflections


Religious history presents few stranger possibilities than this, that the beast sculptured on the staircases at Persepolis may have come at last, after as many changes as the Old Man of the Sea went through, to stand depicted in the windows of Christian cathedrals; that the three-legged ass may have been transformed eventually into a symbol of Christ; that a lunar myth of Mesopotamia may have produced after two thousand years an allegorical representation of the central Christian mystery. Whether these changes ever occurred or not, the unicorn has preserved through all his long history a character that would have made them possible.

For the most part we have made the beasts of fancy in our own image—far more cruel and bloodthirsty, that is to say, than the actual "lower animals". The dragons of the Western world do evil for evil's sake; the harpy is more terrible than the vulture, and the were-wolf is far more frightful than the wolf. Almost the only beast that kills for the pure joy of killing is Western civilized man, and he has attributed his own peculiar trait to the creatures of his imagination. There are a few exceptions, however, to this rule that our projection of ourselves is lower than the facts of Nature, and the unicorn—noble, chaste, fierce yet beneficent, altruistic though solitary, strangely beautiful—is the clearest exception of all. The unicorn was not conceived in fear. Our early sense of Nature's majesty and mystery is revealed in him. If he came from Ur of the Chaldees, where the moon was a friend to man always contending against the demoniacal sun and the powers of darkness alike, his constant benevolence is more readily understood; but whatever may have been his first local habitation and whatever was his original name, this "airy nothing" was born and bred in the human mind. There are times when one takes hope and comfort in remembering the fact.


"Whoever has followed the development of a single department of knowledge", says Nietzsche, "finds in its history a clue to the understanding of the oldest and commonest processes of all intellectual life. There one finds the premature hypotheses, the idle fictions, the absence of distrust, the lack of patience, and the good stupid will to believe. Our senses learn late, and never fully learn, to be subtle, dependable, and cautious instruments of knowledge."

The legend of the unicorn is so old and it has been since its dim beginnings so close to human hearts and bosoms that it illustrates vividly Auguste Comte's three stages of intellectual "progress": the theological, the metaphysical, and the positivistic. Tracing it through the centuries, we have seen it remodelled again and again by the changing Zeitgeist or adjusting itself anew to the time-climates into which it has strayed. The historian of thought might find this legend, indeed, a serviceable thread upon which to arrange his generalizations, and it would save him from Comte's error, and ours, of supposing that the successive stages of human thought are stages of progress in the sense of amelioration. We do not think better about the unicorn than the men who made the myth of the three-legged ass; we think differently.

Although the conception of the unicorn does us credit, the total history of the animal's legend does not flatter our modern pride. In his beginnings, wherever and whatever they may have been, the unicorn was a symbol of beneficent power inhabiting the poetic imagination. The symbol expanded into myth and this myth was debased into fable. The unicorn next became an exemplum of moral virtues, then an actual animal, then a thaumaturge, then a medicine, then an article of merchandise, then an idle dream, and, last stage of all, an object of antiquarian research. Relics of the earlier stages are discoverable in the later, but what is most apparent is the steady intrusion of fact upon fancy and the invasion of what was once a sanctuary by the positivistic temper. We are accustomed to regard the growth of this temper as unqualified gain, and it has indeed brought us many advantages that no sensible man or woman would forgo, but it has not been good for unicorns or for the many holy and beautiful things that unicorns may be taken to represent. There are some quite sober moods in which one may sum up all the unquestionable advantages of modernity and calmly decide that he would "rather be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn".

Or, for that matter, a Christian of the ages when that name still connoted a rich and sufficient and poetic faith. It is true that the Middle Ages moralized the unicorn, thus contributing their share to his degradation, for Christianity inherited from the later Stoics a feeling that all nature is a vast copy-book of maxims designed for mankind's edification, a sort of subsidiary revelation of moral truths. Two thousand years have not quite rid us of that error: Wordsworth did not escape it, and even Emerson revealed his clerical upbringing by the naïve assertion that "Nature is ancillary to man". It was indeed a "pathetic" fallacy, but there are moods in which one would rather believe in even an emasculated and homiletic unicorn than in none at all.

It is not that the men of the Middle Ages who believed in the unicorn were less intelligent than we; their intelligence was trained in a different direction. A modern scientist might make the same havoc among the scientific beliefs of the Schoolmen that the Connecticut Yankee made in King Arthur's Court, but it would by no means follow that he had a better mind than that of Duns Scotus or Thomas Aquinas, any more than it follows that Mark Twain's low-bred Yankee is superior to the champions of chivalry. We care for facts, and are comparatively careless about ultimate meanings; the Middle Ages were regardful of meanings and careless about facts.

The Middle Ages saw the spiritual and physical worlds as two aspects of one thing—a view made easier by their revival of the latonic doctrine of microcosm and macrocosm. We feel confident—although another century of scientific thought may convince us of error—that this view is hostile to the interests of science, but we should not be quite so sure that it is hostile to the interests of men and women. "By depriving objects of their share in the spiritual life of man," says Mr. Aldous Huxley, "by leaving to them only such characteristics as can be measured, physicists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made possible the advance of modern science. world regarded from the introvert's point of view, a subjectivized world, is unamenable to science. It may be picturesque and agreeable, but it is not a world for physicists and mathematicians."

Probably not, although this does not seem a serious objection to such a world, and one hopes that we have not yet fallen so low as to test the worth of this "world" and that by asking whether it has been made safe for mathematicians and physicists. Quite as reasonably ne might demand assurance that a given world is safe for unicorns. But it is to Mr. Huxley's closing remark on this topic that I should like to call special attention: "The scientific theories of the Middle Ages were fruitless theories." Of course they were that in the sense that further scientific theories could seldom be deduced from them, yet there are other things to be asked about a theory than whether it is prolific of corollaries and consequences after its own image. We may ask, for example, how it is related to the total complex of human hopes and fears; and if, like the theories of the physicist and the mathematician, it has been carefully disassociated from these, then its fruit, however abundant, will be to us like Dead Sea apples and will furnish forth a Barmecide Feast. The scientific theories of the Middle Ages were not like this. They were framed, unconsciously, with human "values" always foremost in thought. When we have begun to correct our own extreme tendency in the opposite direction we can afford to be severe with them for this, but in the meantime we do well to remember that

There are two laws discrete,
Not reconciled,—
Law for man, and law for thing;
The last builds town and fleet,
But it runs wild,
And doth the man unking.


Is there no choice possible, then, except that between a docile and unquestioning acceptance of authority on the one hand and a world of physicists and mathematicians on the other? Because Ole Wurm has demonstrated that alicorns are really the teeth of whales, must we abandon the unicorn altogether? I do not see the necessity.

The higher and the enduring values of a belief—the faiths that we call religious provide the best examples—do not depend at all upon its congruity with actual fact, but upon its sway over the human heart and mind. They are grounded not upon fact, but upon what even we may perhaps still call "the truth". The question of historicity and actuality with regard to gods and unicorns is a relatively trifling matter which may be left to antiquarians and biologists, for both the god and the unicorn had a business to perform greater than any mere existence in the flesh could explain or provide a basis for. We wrong ourselves when we insist that if they cannot make good their flesh-and-blood actuality on our level we will have none of them.

The unicorn came to stand for Christ, and for that reason if for no other we can scarcely avoid passing in thought from the symbol to the symbolized. Here are two great and beautiful legends, to say no more than that, neither of which could have lived so long in the world if it had not contained a truth far higher than any historic or zoological fact could help us to understand. But legends and truths of this kind are in grave danger in a world increasingly adjusted to the requirements of physicists and mathematicians; there is question whether they can hold out against our tendency to accept no truths except those the senses seem to warrant—which is to say, no truths whatever, but only facts. The legend of the unicorn was assailed three centuries ago on the side of fact, and it gradually withered because there was no longer any sufficient capacity for a faith unsustained by the senses. That attack could never have been made if the unicorn had not first been dragged from the fastnesses of the imagination to take his chances in the mob of animals whose only claim upon our attention is that they happen to exist. Three centuries from now, if we continue to make the question of fact decisive where it should have least weight, the legend of Christ may be as outworn as that of the beast that was once His appropriate symbol. For the decline of the unicorn began with the affirmation that the animal must exist in nature, and just so, as Matthew Arnold saw with painful clearness, religion is declining because it has based its claim upon fact, or supposed fact, which is now crumbling. Our best hope seems to lie in the faith expressed by Arnold himself that in the years coming on poetry will be an ever surer and surer stay.

Chapter X: Reflections

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