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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Fiske (1842–1901)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
JOHN FISKE was born in Hartford, Connecticut, March 30th, 1842, the son of Edmund Brewster Green, of Smyrna, Delaware. The son’s name was originally Edmund Fiske Green; but in 1855 he took the name of his maternal great-grandfather John Fiske. His father had died, and his mother had been married to Edwin W. Stoughton, a distinguished lawyer, since known as United States Minister to Russia. An authentic account shows him to have been a boy of extraordinary industry and acquisition. Thus, at thirteen, he had read a great deal of the best Latin literature. He could read Plato and Herodotus at sight when fifteen years old. A little later he took up in rapid succession French, Italian, Portuguese, Hebrew, and Sanskrit. His studies in science and mathematics were as extensive as in the languages. During his college course the young man is said to have averaged throughout the year fifteen hours of study daily. He was graduated at Harvard in 1863, and at the Harvard Law School in 1865. Mr. Fiske has never practiced law, however, his preferences for literary life having declared themselves early. He had married while in the law school, and was even then using his pen for the support of his family.  1
  John Fiske’s career as an author began with the publication, when he was nineteen years of age, of an article on Buckle, in which he made an exposition of the fallacies of that writer; which is as good to-day as at the time it was written. For two years, from 1869 to 1871, he was a lecturer on philosophy at Harvard. He was afterwards assistant librarian of that university, and has since served as a member of the board of overseers. The most serious work of his earlier years was his ‘Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy,’ in which he appeared as an expounder of the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. It was written with that attractive lucidity which characterizes all his books. Darwin wrote him, “I never in my life read so lucid an expositor (and therefore thinker) as you are.” This work claims only to be a representation of Spencer; but in the course of it Mr. Fiske made one original contribution in support of the Darwinian theory, which is now recognized to be of high importance. This concerns the subject of infancy. The idea is that actions which in the case of the simpler animals are matured before birth, must in the higher and more complex animals be acquired after birth. Hence the necessity of a period of infancy, to be prolonged in proportion to the degree of elevation of the animal in the scale of existence.  2
  Since the publication of his ‘Cosmic Philosophy,’ Mr. Fiske’s labors have been given almost entirely to history. That his attention has been turned to American history seems to have been due to chance. If it had been left to him to select a subject, he would probably have chosen the conflicts of Christianity and Mohammedanism on the shores of the Mediterranean—a theme that has always had a special attraction for him. But this was not to be. In the late seventies an effort, which proved to be successful, was made to save the Old South Meeting-House in Boston. Had the attempt been made earlier it would probably have failed. But the fate of John Hancock’s house had served as an example, and by 1879 people were beginning to feel that this country had a history that deserved attention. Mr. Fiske was invited to deliver a course of lectures on American political ideas at the Old South Meeting-House. Since that time he has been writing American history. He has written ‘The Beginnings of New England,’ ‘The American Revolution,’ ‘The Critical Period of American History,’ etc. The book which perhaps has had the widest attention is ‘The Discovery of America.’ The first part of this work is taken up with a description of the aboriginal society which Columbus and his successors found on this continent. This subject is closely connected with that of prehistoric society in Europe, which attracted the writer very early in his career.  3
  In 1869 he had sketched out a work on the early Aryans, when he was turned aside for five years to write his ‘Cosmic Philosophy.’ During that period he also wrote ‘Myths and Myth-Makers,’ as a side work to his projected book on the Aryans. He again took up his task in 1874, but laid it aside after he had reached the conclusion that the subject could not be rightly treated without widening the field of study. It was necessary to know more of the barbaric world. With this view he set about the study of aboriginal American society, with which, he contends, no other field can be compared for fruitfulness. The part of the ‘Discovery of America’ which treats of this subject has great interest; but it is less generally attractive than his narration of the romantic incidents and characters of the period of discovery. Here we have at its best the writer’s talent for clear exposition and attractive narration. There is no better example of his literary powers than his account of the first voyage of Columbus. It is worthy of the possibilities of the story. Of all stories with a good ending, that, to an American mind at any rate, is perhaps the best. If there is a piece of American literature which has taken a strong hold of the popular mind, it is that chapter on the voyage of Columbus in ‘Peter Parley’ now known to have been written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is high praise of Mr. Fiske, to say that his more elaborate version of the ever-delightful story is worthy of the ideal of dramatic interest left by that youthful reading.  4
  Besides his investigations upon history and politics, science and philosophy, Mr. Fiske has also been an inquirer upon religious themes. Perhaps none of his writings have attracted more attention or been read with a livelier interest than two little books which set forth his views on this subject. They were first delivered as addresses before the Concord School of Philosophy. The aim of ‘The Destiny of Man’ is to show that the theory of natural selection consists perfectly with the highest conception that can be formed of the dignity of human nature. It is true that the Darwinian theory made some such alteration in the position of man in the creation as had been done by the Copernican theory. With the establishment of the Copernican theory, man ceased to be the center of the universe. Darwin’s theory taught him that even on this planet he had not a separate origin from the rest of animal existence. This view was at first regarded as a great derogation from human dignity. But Mr. Fiske claims that it accords with the highest conception of man’s position in the universe. Man, and especially his spiritual part, is by this view made the goal to which nature has been all the while tending. The origin of man is fixed at that moment when psychical variations become of more use than physical ones. With this period is connected consciousness, the great increase of brain surface, and the necessity of a period of infancy. To the length of infancy of the human being Mr. Fiske attributes the rise of the family. Then comes the rise of the clan. Then comes the period when during some time of peace, the clan learns to obtain food by agriculture instead of by hunting; and we have the beginnings of the State.  5
  Again, the gentler sentiments which we recognize in men, the altruistic feelings, are due to the existence of infancy. These sentiments can have, however, only a very feeble and narrow existence during the period when man is a nomad and hunter, and when the strife for life is necessarily ferocious. Agriculture, on the other hand, has been a great educator of the milder qualities of mankind. So long as strife raged over food already in existence, such as game, the supply of which was limited, the battle must necessarily be to the uttermost. But from the soil mankind could get food without strife. War, however, still does not cease. The strife which formerly raged among families and clans continues between nations. But strife is nevertheless on the wane. This sentence of Mr. Fiske, written twelve years ago, is of especial interest in view of recent discussions:—“Sooner or later it [strife] must come to an end, and the pacific principle of federacy, whereby the questions between States are settled like questions between individuals, by due process of law, must reign supreme over all the earth.” Original sin is, according to Mr. Fiske, that brute inheritance which we have received from our warring and selfish ancestors. The disciple of Darwin finds new meanings in the beatitude “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” A concluding chapter asserts a belief in a future life, while admitting that it cannot be proved from the facts of nature. The creation of man, and of the perfected man, is thus the goal towards which, during all these ages, nature has been tending through natural selection.  6
  When asked to make a second address before the Concord School of Philosophy, he took for his subject ‘The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge.’ In this address he contends that science is not atheistic, that there is no conflict between science and religion, and that the notion that science substitutes force for the idea of a God is a mistake. There has been, he says, a metaphysical misconception of the term “force.”  7
  This brief reference to Mr. Fiske’s philosophy is necessary to acquaint the reader to whom the works of this able writer may not be well known with the scope of his inquiries and the range of his sympathies. The field of his investigations embraces the history of the material universe, of organic life and of the mind of man. Man’s course he follows from the moment of dawning intelligence, studies him in his prehistoric stage, and lastly, as a member of highly civilized communities on this continent, at the same time throwing a strong glance forward upon his individual and social destiny.  8
  Mr. Fiske’s death occurred at Gloucester, Massachusetts, July 4, 1901. He was domestic in his tastes, being fond of his home, his books, and his music; his life was that of a true scholar, and it must be measured by his high aims and tireless industry. He was an extremely brilliant man; a scholar rather of the receptive than the creative type, and his style was one of remarkable lucidity and attractiveness. Endowed with greater powers than most of his contemporaries, he worked but the more diligently to accomplish the tremendous tasks which he had set for himself.  9
 
 
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