Old Wine in New Bottles


By MARY LATIMER GAMBRELL, Ph.D., Department of History, Hunter College of the City of New York

Delivered at the commencement exercises of New Haven State Teachers College, May 22, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 667-671.

I shall speak this morning about old wine in new bottles. Everyone is familiar with the wisdom recorded by St. Matthew that men do not "put new wine in old bottles; eke the bottles break and the wine runneth out and the bottles perish." The reference there is to bottles made of skin which, when old, were dry, inelastic and brittle, and therefore inadequate to the properties of new wine. In metaphorical usage wine represents the essence of goodness; the wicked are likened unto vinegar; and the good man who turns to wickedness is compared to sour wine. It is metaphorically that I shall use the term today, and the old wine of which I shall speak is the sum total of those ideas which in our tradition have constituted the essence of the good life. They are concerned principally with the concept of man. They are simple and easily stated: that this is an ordered universe in which the individual is part of a greater plan; as the most significant part of that plan he has intrinsic worth and dignity, and the whole achieves its ordered end only in so far as each individual achieves his highest potentialities. He is not an atom in chaos, but a member of society; he is not merely one of a pile of stones, but rather an integral part of the cathedral that is mankind. Individual liberty is a basic principle, but it is understood as Montesquieu expressed it that "Liberty does not consist in an unlimited freedom. . . . Liberty can only consist in the power of doing what we ought to will."

Until very recently these age-old concepts of value had not for many years been discussed on public platforms: cynicism was the vogue. The motives of the founding fathers were condemned as mercenary, and the achievements of a century and a half of this republic were ridiculed as fantastically meager. We were so safe, so free, so rich, we could afford the rare pastime of using our own institutions for target practice. Today that is all changed. When the very earth begins to tremble under our feet, and we daily hear the crash of the ramparts to all we hold dear falling before the forces of darkness, it again becomes appropriate to examine the foundations of the faith by which we live. We must find again those standards of value by which life hasmeaning. I stand before you without apology, indeed I know that none is required, for speaking to the present college generation of the ideas upon which our greatness and happiness as a people have been built.

As compared with the long story of mankind, they are "new" ideas, entering our stream of history with the Hebrew tradition. Among other peoples of that and earlier times man was in his own opinion but a puppet in the hands of mysterious forces, regarded as gods, who punished or blessed according to whim and who must therefore be appeased by whatever means were deemed requisite. To the early Hebrew, however, man was more than a plaything of the gods; he was of such stature and dignity as to have merited a Covenant, a contract if you will, with the one God Himself. According to this, the Hebrews were to obey the laws of Jehovah, and, in return, were to enjoy forever divine favor and protection. Moreover, their God was an ethical power and hence his law was a law of justice, not of wilful force. Its basis was the Ten Commandments, which to this day form the moral foundation to all western civilization. Before this law, all who shared in the Covenant were equal. It bound ruler and ruled alike. David, the king, was rebuked by Nathan, the prophet, and Ahab by Elijah.

To these teachings of the justice of God, and the rights of the covenanters, Christianity added an extension and a new emphasis. This was the privilege of knowing and accepting the faith, which was free to all, bond or free, Christian or Greek, Gentile or Jew. There were to be no more barriers of race, creed or position. By faith in the Christian precept: "love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself" one became spiritually identical with all other men who lived in that faith. All men were brothers because all were the children of God.

Meanwhile, as the idea of the dignity and sacred worth of the individual was developing under the Hebrew-Christian tradition, there was growing in the Graeco-Roman world the pagan concept of a universal law of nature, fixed and immutable, comprehensible by man's reason, to which all men were subject, and under which, therefore, all men were

equal. To the Greek philosopher seeking to know the nature of the universe, and through that knowledge the meaning of the Good Life, the answer seemed to come from the beautifully ordered and beneficent world of nature that he saw about him. In this world of natural law, Socrates sought to find man's place—"The true, the noble, the just, and the pious." The highest form of this thought is found in the teachings of the Stoics—that the cosmic order was divine in origin, and that human happiness was to be attained by living in accord with it—the idea of universal natural law, universal natural citizenship, and universal natural brotherhood. Man simple as man, endowed with the divine attribute of reason, had dignity and worth in a world republic. Here, as in the Christian tradition, there was neither Greek nor barbarian, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free.

By the happy accident of history, or by the design of eternal planning, these two streams of thought converged in the Roman Empire. There for a few centuries under the Pax Romana all that was to become the western civilized world met and mingled as one people, speaking one language, and obeying one law, blending and developing ideas. Out of that Roman world came two great inheritances that have determined the course of western history. One was Roman law, the practical application and organized statement of a basic political law which was regarded as eternal, rational, and just—since, as in the Stoic concept, it was revealed through right reason and applied to all men everywhere, not merely to Greeks or Romans. To the Roman the ultimate authority of the state emanated from the people as a political whole; the bond which joined them was binding only when it was just—and justice was in the universal reason which all men by nature shared. The whole idea was rooted in the conviction of the essential equality of men as men, and that positive law was but the embodiment of eternal natural law. These political conceptions formed the intellectual cornerstone of the edifice of modern democracy. Christian philosophy, the other great inheritance from the Roman world, was and is its spiritual foundation.

Since the day of Rome, every power, even the most absolute, ecclesiastical or national, has had to justify itself in this frame of reference as an instrument of justice. Both kings and popes were limited by what were understood to be human rights. Oppression and even slavery were practiced, it is true, but always under the admission that in the law of the cosmic order all men shared, and in the sight of God all men were brothers.

The most profound thinkers of the Middle Ages were troubled by the possibilities of conflict between the two sources of fundamental law—one natural, the other divine. This difficulty they resolved in the medieval synthesis as expressed by St. Thomas Aquinas: that there are two kinds of knowledge, one sensory, the other spiritual—one discerned in the natural universe through use of the senses, the other known through faith. The world of nature or of reason was not contradictory to that of faith but merely the lower rungs of a ladder by which one mounted to the highest knowledge, the knowledge of God, which rested upon faith. This was the unity of the Middle Ages. Its major principle or value was God, and around this principle the whole civilization was integrated: its ethics, its philosophy, its science, its law, its political organization, its economic organization, its music, its painting, and most eloquent of all, its architecture. The beautiful Gothic cathedral was the "Bible in stone."

The method used in reaching the medieval synthesis was the logical—reliance upon man's reason. This itself was prophetic of the modern world—the age of science, and inmany cases reliance upon the power of man through experiment and observation alone to solve the mysteries of the universe. Thus came the 18th century, "Age of Enlightenment," and the development of what Professor Sorokin calls the sensate culture, in which true reality and value is believed to be sensory—that only what we see, hear, smell, touch, and otherwise perceive through our sense organs is real. Under this impact the most orthodox continued to hold much the same opinion as St. Thomas Aquinas: that the laws of the natural universe but supported and illumined Scriptural revelations. Others retreated to belief in a vague and shadowy First Cause which had created and set into operation the laws of nature and then forgotten them. Yet others discarded God altogether and left to future scientific investigation the discovery of the origins of being. As might be expected, in the light of human frailty, most of those who thought at all believed somewhat incompletely in both natural and revealed religion and never gave themselves the mental exercise of eliminating contradictions in their thinking.

In this 18th century climate of opinion—intellectual and spiritual heritage from the Hebrew-Christian, the Graeco-Roman, the medieval, and the early scientific ages—were born the political principles and practices of what we today defend as the democratic way of life. Whatever the conflicts, there were then certain agreements in the minds of all thinking men: that there was a fixed and immutable law of the physical universe; that there was likewise an eternal moral law, whether natural or divine, which determined the place of man in the universe, and fixed upon him certain rights and responsibilities which were inescapable. The Good Life consisted in fitting oneself into the cosmic harmony. Good government was to make that possible.

In this basic philosophy American political institutions have their roots, and as I believe, in it alone do they have meaning. The phrases "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights," as well as the reference to "the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them" have such a familiar ring that most Americans have never reflected upon their implications and assumptions. The belief that governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed" was based upon the premise that men have rights, that they have duties, that they have reason—which is another way of saying that under a higher law each is a moral being. The freeman's oath, by which one was admitted to the franchise in Massachusetts Bay Colony was concerned entirely with the duties of that office, not at all with its privileges.

In order that inalienable rights might be protected, the most obvious were by the founding fathers set forth in the bills of rights, state and federal. It is not necessary to repeat them here, but they are based upon the assumption of sanction by a higher law, and that it is only through the freedom to exercise them, and to express himself, that man may be true to the best he knows and thinks and feels. One has only to read the Federalist papers to see that the Constitutional Fathers, whatever their selfish interests may have been—and there doubtless were some—believed that they were establishing a positive law that was to a high degree the incarnation of the law of the universe. The great Seal of the United States adopted in 1782 is indicative of the sense of being in harmony with eternal wisdom. On its reverse side, above an uncompleted pyramid there is an eye surrounded by a "glory" and a Latin motto, meaning "God has smiled on our undertakings." Below is the motto "Novus OrdoSeclorum," which translated reads "the new order of the ages." Hitler, indeed, and his new world order! His is as old as the primeval savage, where might made right, the strong oppressed the weak, where there was no justice because there was no law before which every man stood upright as the brother and equal of all other men.

Our "new order of the ages," new in the 18th century, is still new, for in the long light of history 1789 is but yesterday. Moreover, its reach has been beyond its grasp. Not until the middle of the 19th century were its basic political concepts implemented, much later its social and economic; many of them are still but dreams. Such ideals were difficult of accomplishment. They may be likened to a shining goal toward which we struggle but sometimes lose our way. However, the fact that we have been known to lose our way must not be allowed to obscure the truth that the way has been good, and that the milestones of progress have been manifold: education, health, humanitarianism, and higher levels of living are but a few. We have lost our way when practices which once conformed to the principles of our new order have been followed long after practice and principle had diverged. The principles were still good, but new conditions required new adaptations. Such adaptations could not be made if men forgot that the concept of natural rights carried as the other face of the same coin, natural duties; that democracy was not only a privilege but a responsibility. "Democracy," said John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, "is primarily a spiritual testament, from which certain political and economic orders naturally follow. But the essence is the testament, the order may change while the testament stands." Reverting to the original metaphor, ours has too often become, in the words of Milton, "the sweet poison of misused wine."

Meanwhile as conditions changed, philosophical variations of the deepest significance were taking place beneath the surface. What has been described as the sensate culture, sensory, empirical, secular, this-worldly, had by the end of the 19th century to an amazing degree displaced the culture of ideals. The great scientific advances and the conquest by man of the physical universe had served so to magnify his importance in temporal affairs as to dim that greater significance with which earlier thought had crowned him. Obviously, a creature who could belt the continents with ribbons of railroads, who could talk through the ether and under the sea, who could harness nature to his will was of consequence and distinction. But the earlier meaning of man's intrinsic worth and value was to many lost. Scientists had given up the myth of natural law, and many of the children of the faithful had lost their sense of eternal truth. It became a commonplace at our most venerable seats of learning, as well as in our highest courts of law, that "The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market." Surely, as Macbeth had said "The wine of life is drawne and the meere lees is left this vault, to brag of."

True, we continued to mouth the shibboleths of democracy. We continued to talk of equal rights, of justice, and the dignity of man, but in the light of a pragmatic and materialistic philosophy they had lost their original implication. We were entrusted with preserving an idea whose real meaning many did not know. Were we not living off the spiritual capital of our cultural heritage, at the same time denying the intellectual validity of that heritage? Have we not been as one living in the snug security of his ancestral house, unmindful of the creeping underground waters that oozed into its substructure? Perhaps the present assault on our physical frontiers may after all be an ill wind blowinggood, if it but arouse us to the more insidious penetration of our philosophical foundations.

Fortunately for us, though the axioms of our way of life may often have been misapplied, endangered, or forgotten, its essence has remained unclouded and safe throughout the centuries. But let us not deceive ourselves, there have been civilizations—apparently of a high order—that have been forever lost.

If the old wine, the goodness of our way of life, is to be preserved, we must examine the bottles, and the bottles have in every generation been the individuals who composed it. It is still true as in Plato's Athens that the strength of a city is in the virtue of its citizens. To win the war we do need tanks and planes in ever greater numbers, but these alone will not win the war, much less save our way of life; for that, we need men and women of intelligence and integrity who believe in the power of truth and right and who have the moral stamina to stand for their ideals in the face of every difficulty. It is in the conviction that every age will furnish a substantial number of such citizens that the validity of our democratic theory lies, for the "democratic way of life"; is as the phrase implies, only a "way" to the good life, it is not the good life itself. That remains for each free individual to create, and the idea is based upon his right and his will to physical, mental, and spiritual self-development. It assumes man's inherent worth, and the incalculable riches that will flow from unfettered genius: freedom to sing the song, to paint the picture, to write the poem, to build the bridge, to discover in the laboratory, to develop the mind of youth. Because man has felt within himself that kindling sense of his own intrinsic value, which if allowed to flower would ennoble not only himself but his fellowman, he has so often in the past been willing to risk his life that he, and his children after him, might be free. It was out of such spirit that this republic was born. "For, under God, we are determined," declared Josiah Quincy in 1774, "that wheresoever, whensoever, or howsoever we shall be called upon to make our exit, we will die free men."

But freedom is meaningless or worse unless it eventuates in individual fulfillment. As Edmund Burke pointed out in the 18th century, liberty without wisdom and without virtue is the greatest of all possible evils. If, as we believe, democracy is the path of wisdom, and the only way in the temporal world to the Good Life, it places the maximum responsibility upon each of its members. Yet one of the most pungent criticisms directed at present democratic practice is that under it individual authority and the sense of individual responsibility are lost. In nature animals must adapt or become extinct. Likewise democracy, if it is to survive, must rise to meet the complexities of the new age; if the old ideas were in truth the essence of goodness they can be applied in a new frame of reference. Out of the tragic memory of Dunkirk there comes a reminder of what the individual can do independently when awakened to compelling necessity. When, in that June 1940 news came to England that her men were trapped between the sea and the German army, mercilessly exposed to the rain of death from German planes, there was no waiting for authority to organize rescue. That became the immediate duty of everyone who had or could secure a boat of any variety, pleasure boat or tug, anything that would float. Those who went were the "little people" and the "great people"; old men and boys. One 14-year old boy is said to have made six journeys alone. Wounded at last, he had saved forty men. When individuals are vitally aroused they will act, in spite of poor leaders, or of none.

It is that supreme confidence of the common man in his own and his fellowmen's ability to master circumstancesthat has given democracy its buoyant and staying character. Only when that self-confidence is gone does the dictator's opportunity arise. His power ascends as the craven succumb to perplexity. Responsibility for failure is too often laid upon elected officials, by persons who forget that in democratic countries leaders may be held responsible for poor leadership, but not for the ineptitude of those whom they lead. Leaders may counsel unwisely, or act with an eye single to the ballot box, but if the democratic theory is valid then those who follow are themselves responsible for the final outcome. Britain's statesmen prior to the present war may indeed be charged with poor leadership, but one must not forget the peace oaths by her university youth, or the declarations of her labor organizations. The fault is "not in our stars but in ourselves if we are underlings." It is significant that the greatest single expression of the heart of the democratic testament "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" measures the regard one shall have for others by that one holds for oneself, making self value the cornerstone for social action. Just a little way from where you sit, one of the university buildings bears above its doorway this inscription quoted from Tennyson: "Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control. These three alone lead life to sovereign power."

If then individuals be the bottles in whom the old wine is cherished, your generation are the new bottles. We are standing in one of those awful moments of life when for once all things seem to fall into their proper perspective and we see the present with blinding clarity because of the sheer blackness of the backdrop. Every age has its problems and to that age they seem unprecedented, yet there are periods that are more important than others—periods in which the very course of history is determined. Such a one was that of he barbarian invasions of Rome, or the age of discovery of new lands overseas. Such an age is this. America is the last stand in the defense of civilization; there is no further bastion. In America, it is upon your generation will fall the responsibility for gathering up what remains of a distraught people in a war-torn world, and for rebuilding it in terms of what the ages have shown to be the eternal values. If you allow the lamps of freedom to go out, they may not be relighted for centuries.

Upon you as the college graduates of your generation a particular burden will rest. Even in America you are only 4.6% of the population. From the very nature of things, you must be leaders. You have been given opportunity beyond the average American boy and girl, to develop those qualities of mind and heart which will be essential in the world you must reconstruct. You probably have made more of your college training than previous classes because of your tremendous recognition of moral obligation. You have seen as they never saw what it means to be free to pursue in a free land the cultivation of the mind. Despite its present tragedy, yours will in many ways be the greatest opportunity known in all history. Of this Chinese pictorial writing is suggestive: the symbol for crisis is composed of two pictures, one representing catastrophe, the other, opportunity. Dynamic moments of history do open new frontiers. While normally the human race moves forward on leaden feet, you will face a world from which this holocaust has swept away outmoded practices that in more tranquil times would have required years. In the motor industry plants have been completely emptied of their machinery to make way for war production. Consider what this may mean in improved motor cars, when the cessation of war makes possible such an installation of new machinery and methods as in ordinary times would have been an engineer's dream of Utopia. Likewise, in man'sway of getting on with his fellow man, he may find it possible to make tremendous advances such as those made by the English, American, and French revolutions. It is well to remember that from amidst the falling ruins of the Roman Empire Christianity emerged as the cohesive factor of the western world.

Life for all youth is a great adventure; yours too will be adventure, but dignified by the great responsibility you carry for future ages. You are among those who know, but as Woodrow Wilson once remarked "We are not put into the world to sit still and know, we are put into it to act." Schemes for the millennium already flourish with tropical luxuriance. They will continue to do so into and beyond the peace. Some will be absurd, some will be sublime; some will be sound ideas for working out the good life in a world of human beings still somewhat short of perfection. Your generation will have much to do with selecting the wheat from the chaff. You will have more to do with making the rebuilt world work; the most difficult task of all, as history teaches. There have been many plans for maintaining the peace of the world—from Sully's "Grand Design" to Woodrow Wilson's dream of a League of Nations. All have failed because the individuals into whose hands they were entrusted proved inadequate to their task. In Milton's pithy words "War has made many great whom peace makes small."

Your college education has been designed to prepare you for your task; to develop in you the two qualities that you will need most. They are a trained intelligence and a sound character. It will be your responsibility to future generations to use them faithfully throughout your lives. One of the most moving stories to come out of the present war is that of Colin Kelly, as told by one of his former classmates at West Point. For weary month after weary month, following his graduation, young Kelly had worked into the long hours of the night mastering the techniques of mathematics and of instruments that would make him an unerringly skillful bombing pilot, the one ambition that had ever commanded supreme effort. His great moment came that day out over the Pacific, shortly after Pearl Harbor, when he sighted the Japanese war-vessel Haruna. Carefully he circled above his target, eyes fixed on his instruments, gradually reducing, as only the most skilled could, the last small minimum of chance. This was no trial flight, it was the real thing at last; the supreme moment toward which all his drudgery had been designed. He knew what success would mean to the cause he served, and with no time to revel in the glory that might be his, he chose the split second that meant success. Just then the enemy anti-aircraft guns found their mark—but the battleship was going down. Of all the tributes later paid to Colin Kelly the most telling was that by his former comrade who said simply "He was a bombing pilot, bombing a battleship, and he bombed it."

Most of you will not be privileged to meet your test in one brief instant, amidst the cheers and tears of a grateful republic, but it will be no less real and the results no less momentous. Make no mistake, our way of life will not survive through its goodness alone. Each new generation must comprehend and value it, defend it by force when necessary, and then pass on to the next generation a sense of its worth. It is in the last of these obligations—that of handing down a sacred tradition—that most of you as teachers will serve most significantly. Inasmuch as democracy is based upon the assumption that there is a body of truth, and that through free choice there will be agreement on spiritual and ethical values, it is the highest function of the teacher in a democratic society to bend his efforts towardintegrating these factors. Democracy itself must stand or fall on such philosophic unity among its members. To teach it is the most difficult of all teaching. It is suggestive that the behest teaching degree, Doctor of Philosophy, literally means "Teacher of the love of wisdom."

In conclusion it may be said that the world into which you go is a hard world. Years of tribulation lie ahead. Your elders and their predecessors have done some things very badly—they have done others magnificently. You may profit by their mistakes. They have at least preserved for you the knowledge of what the good life is, and thus kept open the way for its preservation. That it will be more difficult foryou likewise to pass on this heritage to those who follow you is the supreme challenge to your generation. The wine is old and good, the bottles are new and elastic; with confidence we repeat to you these familiar words of hope from President Lincoln's message to Congress in 1862:

"The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. . . . We cannot escape history. . . . No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. . . . We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth."