Few readers of this magazine probably know anything about “Mystics;” know even what the term means: but as it is plainly connected with the adjective “mystical” they probably suppose it to denote some sort of vague, dreamy, sentimental, and therefore useless and undesirable personage. Nor can we blame them if they do so; for mysticism is a form of thought and feeling now all but extinct in England. There are probably not ten thorough mystics among all our millions; the mystic philosophers are very little read by our scholars, and read not for, but in spite of, their mysticism; and our popular theology has so completely rid itself of any mystic elements, that our divines look with utter disfavour upon it, use the word always as a term of opprobrium, and interpret the mystic expressions in our liturgy– which mostly occur in the Collects–according to the philosophy of Locke, really ignorant, it would seem, that they were written by Platonist mystics.
We do not blame them either, save in as far as teachers of men are blameworthy for being ignorant of any form of thought which has ever had a living hold upon good and earnest men, and may therefore take hold of them again. But the English are not now a mystic people, any more than the old Romans were; their habit of mind, their destiny in the world, are like those of the Romans, altogether practical; and who can be surprised if they do not think about what they are not called upon to think about?
Nevertheless, it is quite a mistake to suppose that mysticism is by its own nature unpractical. The greatest and most prosperous races of antiquity–the Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindoos, Greeks–had the mystic element as strong and living in them as the Germans have now; and certainly we cannot call them unpractical peoples. They fell and came to ruin–as the Germans may do–when their mysticism became unpractical: but their thought remained, to be translated into practice by sounder-hearted races than themselves. Rome learnt from Greece, and did in some confused imperfect way that which Greece only dreamed; just as future nations may act hereafter, nobly and usefully, on the truths which Germans discover, only to put in a book and smoke over. For they are terribly practical people, these mystics, quiet students and devotees as they may seem. They go, or seem to go, down to the roots of things, after a way of their own; and lay foundations on which–be they sound or unsound–those who come after them cannot choose but build; as we are building now. For our forefathers were mystics for generations; they were mystics in the forests of Germany and in the dales of Norway; they were mystics in the convents and the universities of the Middle Ages; they were mystics, all the deepest and noblest minds of them, during the Elizabethan era.
Even now the few mystic writers of this island are exercising more influence on thought than any other men, for good or for evil. Coleridge and Alexander Knox have changed the minds, and with them the acts, of thousands; and when they are accused of having originated, unknowingly, the whole “Tractarian” movement, those who have watched English thought carefully can only answer, that on the confession of the elder Tractarians themselves, the allegation is true: but that they originated a dozen other “movements” beside in the most opposite directions, and that free-thinking Emersonians will be as ready as Romish perverts and good plain English churchmen to confess that the critical point of their life was determined by the writings of the fakeer of Highgate. At this very time too, the only real mystic of any genius who is writing and teaching is exercising more practical influence, infusing more vigorous life into the minds of thousands of men and women, than all the other teachers of England put together; and has set rolling a ball which may in the next half century gather into an avalanche, perhaps utterly different in form, material, and direction, from all which he expects.