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Plus Ultra Vs. Ne Plus Ultra

By Frank G. Allen


      [An Address Delivered Before Eminence College, June 10, 1881.]

      LADIES AND GENTLEMEN OF EMINENCE COLLEGE:--It has ever been a delight to me to meet with the faculty and students of Eminence College on these festive occasions. It is but natural that the hearts of those who have gone out from these classic halls should turn on these gala days, and in feeling if not in fact, renew the fond associations of the past. They are oases in the desert; well-springs to the thirsty soul in the journey of life. I should, therefore, be untrue to myself, and unjust to you, were I not to confess to a pardonable pride in the privilege of addressing for the second time one of the graduating classes of this renowned institution. The subject on which I shall to-day address you is

      "Plus Ultra vs. Ne Plus Ultra."

      Spain is the great southwestern peninsula of Europe. It juts out between two seas as does no other country of that continent. Before the discovery of America by Columbus, the Spaniards prided themselves on the supposed fact that their country was the last point of solid land on the earth westward. Beyond them, they thought, there was nothing but a vast expanse of water--a shoreless ocean--a mystery never to be solved. Consequently the early coins of that country, in order to give prominence to this idea, were indented with a picture of the pillars of Hercules, the two great sentries on each side of the straits of Gibraltar. Encircling these pillars on their coins was the inscription, ne plus ultra--nothing beyond. They imagined, therefore, that they constituted the limits of creation; that beyond them there was nothing. Consequently, as in creation the last is the best, they gave to themselves the preeminence. In this proud idea they rested and praised the Lord. In their own estimation, therefore, they constituted the ne plus ultra of God's favored people. Thus they constituted another proud monument of man's folly and ignorance, from which it is well to take warning. In course of time, however, Columbus conceived the idea of another world west of Spain. After long years of discouragement, sufficient to crush the spirit of all but those of noble impulses and high resolves, he was permitted, with a small fleet, utterly insignificant in this age, to sail westward. He thus discovered the new world whose existence, if ever known before, had faded from the memory of man. On his return, when the Spaniards became convinced that a great continent lay to the west of them, they were compelled, humiliating as it was, to change the inscription on their coins, encircling the pillars of Hercules, to plus ultra--more beyond. This the demonstrated truth demanded. Thus the discovery of America took the ne off of their proud motto, thus teaching them a lesson which should be a lesson to the world. Their negation was changed to an affirmation. Their boasted limit of creation was changed to an acknowledgment of the unknown beyond. Thus it has ever been in man's proud history. Thus it will doubtless continue to be till we know as we are known. "Whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away; for now we know only in part, but then shall we know even also as we are known."

      The first thought with which I would impress your minds to-day, especially the minds of those who go out from this institution with the honors of graduation, is that there is something beyond--the plus ultra of a collegiate education. One of the most fatal mistakes in securing a collegiate education is, that this is all. If one of you entertains the idea to-day that your education is "finished," you will be a failure. We hear much in this age about a "finished education" in college. Alas! there is too much truth in it. The education of many is thus "finished," and their progress in life is also finished. A college course is not the end, but simply the means, of an education. This is simply the foundation, not the structure. On this you are to hereafter build; otherwise the foundation will be worthless. Without the after building the foundation itself will decay. This is alike the teaching of the history of man and the Son of God. On this foundation, therefore, I would urge you to build, not for time only, but for eternity. On it you should erect a noble structure, at once an ornament and a blessing to your race. This can not be done in a day. Patience and perseverance are the price of success. You must learn to "labor and to wait."

      How often do we see the scintillations of genius within college walls, of which we see or hear nothing after the day of graduation? On that day the sun of their brilliancy seems to set forever. Why is this? Simply because they think their graduation is the ne plus ultra of their literary life.

      It is not what we learn in college, but what we learn after leaving it, that makes us what we are in after life. The value of a collegiate education consists not in the amount of information it imparts, but in a preparation for the accumulation and use of information. Not simply the best minds, but the best students are those who win the prize in the end. Not the best students in college, but the best students after leaving it, are those who make the world feel their power. Many study hard for the honors of graduation, and beyond this seem to have no aspirations. If this is their ne plus ultra, then it is worthless. This institution does not educate you for graduation; it graduates you for education. Without this end in view, its labors would better cease. An institution is honored not by what its students know on the day of commencement, but by what they know and do ere they matriculate in the great university of worlds. It is, therefore, young ladies and gentlemen, to this end and not to this hour, that your teachers have faithfully labored to bring you. Without this in view, you will miss the grand purpose of your education thus far.

      Doubtless many of us know men and women who have not grown an inch since the day that they went out from these or other halls of learning. They may have promised much at the beginning. On their success high hopes were built. Loving hands were impatient to wreathe their brows with the garlands of victory. But, alas! those hopes have been blighted and those garlands have withered. We see them in the pulpit, at the bar, and in all the other vocations of life. They are failures, not for want of mind, but for want of application. They have not followed up their victories, and their victories have turned to defeat. They have been resting on the honor of faded laurels, that in their freshness so become you to-day. To gather these was the ne plus ultra of their efforts, and hence the end of their success. Therefore, if any of you to-day look upon your graduation as the consummation of your literary struggles, let me exhort you to change your motto, and, like the Spaniards, on the birth of the new world, discard the idea of a possessed ultimatum, and imprint upon your banner plus ultra--more beyond.

      As most of the graduating class are ladies, I feel the necessity of speaking especially of their hopes and prospects. Till recently, the hindrances of woman's education and literary position have been great and discouraging. But, thanks to the religion of Jesus, her disabilities have in Christian lands been removed. Woman was the crowning workmanship of God, and she has received the crowning blessings of Christianity. By the blessing of Christianity, the intellectual and spiritual powers of woman are encouraged. The world is often dazzled by her genius, astonished at her resources, and subdued by her spirit. She has stood in the halls of learning, walked in the groves of science, and gathered laurels on the mountains of fame. She has stimulated the world's genius, soothed its passion, and strewed her pathway through it with the sweetest flowers. Women have ever been the world's brightest angels of mercy--

      "Whose company has harmonized mankind,
      Soften'd the rude and calmed the boisterous mind."

      There are positions in the world for which woman was not made. The finishing touches of creation's wondrous works were too delicate to fit her for the political arena, the command of armies, or the founding of empires. She was made for higher and holier ends than these. She is adapted to a work more noble and more enduring. Her empire is in the heart, and her scepter one of spiritual dominion. Here she is a queen, and reigns without a rival. While there is a limit to her appropriate field of action, there is no limit to her power. Some one has said: "The current of female existence runs more within the embankments of home." This is true, but her influence overflows those banks and inundates the world. Her influence may be compared to the sparkling rivulet that bursts from the mountain peak, then winding its way to the valley below, it flows gently onward for thousands of miles, through rugged hills and fertile plains, bathing the feet of great cities and slaking the thirst of great countries, augmented by its tributaries, till, bearing upon its bosom the commerce of a nation, it pours its flood of waters into the world's great ocean. As our grand Mississippi will readily yield to an infant's touch, and yet bear upon its bosom the proudest vessels of man's invention, so is the tenderness and the power of woman's influence.

      I have spoken of woman being the "last of creation." This expression is generally used in a false sense. She was last because God created on an ascending scale. She was, therefore, last in creation and first in redemption. She gave to the world its Saviour, and first proclaimed His birth from the dead. She was His best friend while He was here, and has been most devoted to His cause during His absence. Hence where Christianity goes woman's power is felt. The extent to which woman is honored marks to-day with unerring certainty the extent of a nation's civilization.

      Young ladies, you have before you a field of golden opportunities. Only thrust in your sickles and reap. In this age and country there are great potentialities to every young lady of a good mind and a pure heart. Let no one, therefore, be discouraged. Remember that there is something beyond--the plus ultra of a well-begun life.

      Having urged the necessity of plus ultra as your motto, as against ne plus ultra, I may drop some profitable hints as to the attainment of success. You know that one may give good advice, though he may not have profited by it himself.

      In the first place, everything depends on work. Intense application is the price of success. The world's benefactors are the world's hard workers. "Tickle the earth with a hoe, and it will laugh at you with a harvest." But it closes its fists against those who extend to it an idle hand. Many people contend that the world owes them a living, and grumble that it does not pay the debt. What have they done for the world to bring it into their debt? The world owes every man a living when he earns it by honest toil, and not before. Those who sow with a stingy hand may expect to reap a scanty harvest. You should, therefore, in whatever vocation you may elect, strive to succeed on this principle; otherwise you will not deserve success.

      You should not be discouraged because surroundings are not favorable, and hope seems long deferred. Be not impatient of results. Do your whole duty, and leave the consequences with the Lord. Never strive to be great. Few men become great this way, and they never deserve it. True greatness comes as a result of devotion to principle and duty. The highest and noblest success comes through a spirit of self-forgetfulness.

      Learn to be indifferent to surroundings. You need not catch the "spirit of the age" unless the "spirit of the age" is worth catching. When you contemplate Marquis de Condorcet, in the dark days of the French Revolution, hiding in a lonely room in the city of Paris, while its streets ran red with noble and innocent blood, quietly writing a book whose subject was, "Man's Certain Progress to Liberty, Virtue, and Happiness," you will understand what I mean.

      You must learn to think; to think regardless of surroundings; to think only of the thing of which you wish to think; and on this to concentrate the whole power of your mind. This requires careful training; but this only is education. With this you have full command of all your resources; without this they avail but little. The great motive power of the world is thought. Information without thought is simply a peddler burdened with stale wares on a dead market. It is not what one knows, but what he can produce, that makes the world feel his power. Hence one must be a producer as well as a receiver. The world's thought must be regenerated in his own mind. He should turn the world's dead facts into living thoughts--"Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn."

      Avoid fickleness of purpose. Decide to do something in harmony with your endowments and the will of God, and do it. Many people of fine attainments and intellectual powers are spending their lives trying to decide for what purpose the Lord made them. Before they determine what they are good for, the world is certain to decide that they are good for nothing. Life is too precious to be spent in hesitation. He who vacillates will do nothing. Concentration is power. The rays of the sun that would hardly warm an infant's hand will, when concentrated by a lens, blister the palms of the hardiest sons of toil.

      If we would make life a success, we must live for a purpose. He who lives simply for the sake of living, has no just conception of life. Those who live for the gratification of the flesh should remember that the goat lives for the same purpose. How humiliating the thought, that so many of the cultured, as well as the ignorant; the rich as well as the poor; the "cream of society" as well as its dregs, are thus living on the low plane of animal life! The grand distinction between man and the brute creation is in his spirit nature. Without spiritual culture, every thought, every aspiration, every gratification, is of the earth earthy. How sad, then, to see the gaudy "butterflies of society" spending their lives without a thought above that which alone can lift them forever above the plane of animal life! It is sad thus to think, but sadder still 'tis true. The enjoyment of "society," therefore, must not be your ne plus ultra, else life will be a failure.

      In order to the highest success, you should live fast, but not in the world's bad sense of that word. I simply mean that your life should be intense. Mere existence is not life. Life is action. Life is not measured by time, but by experience. It is our duty, therefore, to live all we can in the time allotted us. The patriarchs lived longer than we, but we may live more than they. This is a grand age in which we live. We may now live more in fifty years than Methuselah did before the flood. The time is short. Hence if we would live much we must live fast.

      But here I anticipate an objection. You say, "We shall shorten our days by fast living." Not by this kind of fast living. The world will never be troubled for burying ground for those who kill themselves simply by hard work. It is not work, but worry, that wears men out. We have too much friction in our lives. This must be stopped. An hour's passion will tell more on the constitution than a week's work. The largest amount of action, with the smallest amount of friction, is the problem before you; and he is the wisest philosopher who gives to us its best practical solution.

      I wish now to invite your attention to mistakes that men have made in supposing that their knowledge was the ne plus ultra of human wisdom. Time was when the alchemists thought they possessed the ne plus ultra of human knowledge, and that wisdom would die with them; yet their knowledge is now to chemistry what astrology is to astronomy. It is a superstition on whose claims no scientist would dare to risk his reputation. Now chemistry is the ne plus ultra of human wisdom, and every man is a fool who does not hold the key to the secret chambers of its hidden treasures! But how long till we shall have a new chemistry that will render the old a bundle of laughable folly? The fact is, by the advancement of human knowledge we demonstrate that our ancestors were a set of fools, and our posterity will doubtless pay us the same compliment! The philosophy of history should teach us to be modest, and to keep as our motto plus ultra versus ne plus ultra.

      Modern science has demonstrated that of all unreliable things, ancient science is the most unreliable. We should, therefore, expect to eventually see modern science remanded to the same category. One of the greatest inventors of the age, Mr. Edison, whose inventions have had to do wholly with modern science, tells us that he has been constantly thrown off the track and misled by the frauds of science. He thus expresses his estimate of the authorities in modern science:

      "They [the text-books] are mostly misleading. I get mad with myself when I think I have believed what was so learnedly set out in them. There are more frauds in science than anywhere else.... Take a whole pile of them and you will find uncertainty, if not imposition, in half of what they state as scientific truth. They have time and again set down experiments as done by them, curious, out-of-the-way experiments, that they never did, and upon which they have founded so-called scientific truths. I have been thrown off my track often by them, and for months at a time. You see a great name, and you believe it. Try the experiment yourself, and you find the result altogether different.... I tell you I'd rather know nothing about a thing in science, nine times out of ten, than what the books would tell me--for practical purposes, for applied science, the best science, the only science, I'd rather take the thing up and go through with it myself. I'd find out more about it than any one could tell me, and I'd be sure of what I know. That's the thing. Professor this or that will controvert you out of the books, and prove out of the books it can't be so, though you have it right in the hollow of your hand all the time and could break his spectacles with it."

      Thus it is that these authorities have been weighed in the balances and found wanting. This is a marvelous age, an age of unsurpassed invention and discovery of truth, but it is not the ne plus ultra of human wisdom--if we are to take any lessons from the past ages.

      The wave theory of sound, which has been regarded as a settled scientific fact since the days of Pythagorean, is now vigorously attacked, and the adherents to the orthodox ground will have to rally their forces and reconsider their proofs, if they save the theory from slumbering among the follies of the past.

      In the past few years the world has been startled by the bold theory of evolution, as advocated by Darwin, Haeckel, Huxley and others. Many have felt uneasy about the foundations of our faith. But such alarm is all premature. The glaring contradictions of one another of these modern apostles of a "gospel of dirt," and their self-stultification, are enough to convince any thoughtful reader, that if the race has not developed from apes, a few of them bear marks of descent from asses! The credulity of this class of men is simply marvelous. They can believe that a moneron can be developed into a man, but can not believe in a miracle! Their wonderful development of a moneron into a man terminates with the boundary line of time, and thus the ne plus ultra is reached of their "infinite progression!"

      In order to a proper appreciation of the present life, we must be deeply impressed with the nature of that which lies beyond. No one can well spend the present life who does not spend it in view of the life to come. Man must properly appreciate himself before he can live in harmonious relations with his being. No man can have that appreciation of himself essential to a true life, who believes that his ancestors were monerons and mud-turtles!

      While there are many striking resemblances between animals and man, just such as we should expect to find from the hand of the same Creator, who began farthest from himself and worked to his own divine model, yet there are striking differentiae which demand profound consideration. Animals come into the world with the knowledge of their ancestors. The beaver knows just what its ancestors knew before the flood. It is born into the world with that transmitted knowledge. Its posterity will know no more during the millennium. On the contrary, man is born into the world an intellectual blank. However wise his parents, he inherits not one idea. He knows absolutely nothing except what he learns--learns from teachers and by experience. It would be incomprehensibly strange if man in his development from a mollusk, should accumulate inherited knowledge till he reaches the ne plus ultra of terrestrial life, and then by a sudden break in the chain of nature lose it all, and come into the world a born fool!! This would be "development," "natural selection," and the "survival of the fittest," with a vengeance! Here is a chasm between man and the lower animals, made by the hand of God, that human wisdom can never bridge.

      In his intellectual, moral and spiritual development, man starts from zero. God has thus ordained it. He is dependent on progression for all that he is and all that he is to be. God simply gives him a start in this world, with the numberless ages of eternity before him for infinite advancement. The idea, therefore, that "death ends all" nips in the bud this grand conception of man's greatness, and blights forever that which is noblest and truest in his nature. To regard this life as the ne plus ultra of man's development, is to charge nature with a freak of folly, and an abortion in her best works. Men may laud human virtue for human virtue's sake; but if man is but the moth of a day, the fire-fly whose phosphorescent light flashes for a moment and then goes out in eternal night, his virtues are but the tales of the hour that have their value in the telling. If this life is all there is of man, then he is the most unmeaning portion of the creation of God. There is for him no perfection, no satisfying of his inherent wants, and the whole of his existence is a sham and a fraud. As Young has beautifully said:

      "How poor, how rich, how abject, how august,
      How complicate, how wonderful, is man!
      How passing wonder He who made him such!
      Who centered in our make such strange extremes,
      From different natures marvelously mixed,
      Connection exquisite of distant worlds!
      Distinguished link in being's endless chain!
      Midway from nothing to the Deity!
      A beam ethereal, sullied, and absorbed!
      Though sullied and dishonored, still divine!
      Dim miniature of greatness absolute!
      An heir of glory! a frail child of dust!
      Helpless immortal! insect infinite!
      A worm! a God!--I tremble at myself,
      And in myself am lost. At home, a stranger.
      Thought wanders up and down, surprised, aghast,
      And wondering at her own. How reason reels!
      O, what a miracle to man is man!
      Triumphantly distressed! What joy! what dread!
      Alternately transported and alarmed!
      What can preserve my life? or what destroy?
      An angel's arm can't snatch me from the grave;
      Legions of angels can't confine me there."

      It is only when we thus look beyond this life, and contemplate his relation to the Deity, that we realize the true dignity of man.

      It is natural that you should desire power--power to bless the race and bring it nearer to God. Do not be discouraged if you do not find this power clothed in the world's pomp and parade. The most God-like power comes not in this way. God works by quiet forces that man may scorn but can not equal. Behold that mountain of ice in the polar sea held by the relentless grip of a winter's frost. All the engineering power of man could not shake it upon its throne. All the locomotives in the world could not move it an inch. But nature unveils her smiling face when the springtime comes, the sun sheds upon it his gentle rays, noiseless as the grave, too mild to hurt an infant's flesh, and soon these mountains of ice relax their grip and glide away into the great deep! This is power. This power you may possess, and should strive to possess, through the gentle forces of a regenerated nature, till the quiet influences you exert for God will pass beyond the bounds of time and be expended on a shoreless eternity.

      In conclusion, then, let me urge you to live for eternity, and let the life that now is be with reference to that which is to come. Then will you progress from the low plane of our terrestrial sphere to association with God, and eternity alone will mark the ne plus ultra in intellectual and spiritual development toward the Divine Being.

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