Since daybreak I have laboured until now,
Stretched on a shady bank and wipe my brow;
Enough bread garnered for myself and Eve.
God’s punishment for sin, that I must leave
The paradisal groves of idleness,
Haunted by dreams of love and soft caress,
And with my body’s sweat and patient toil
Ravish a harvest from the grudging soil.
‘Tis hard, at times, in frost or burning sun,
Panting, to strive until the race be run;
Still, O most jealous and revengeful God,
I find in me to say, ‘I kiss Thy rod,’
Not in submission, but in proud disdain,
My mind is not cast in so mean a plane
That all my joys should lie in slothful ease.
True, I would keep the shore in stormy seas,
No hero of romance, but, for its zest,
There must be some work done before my rest;
Labour may be a burden? so it may,
Yet better far than everlasting play,
If labour be the penalty of sin
I would transgress, the penalty to win.
Perhaps, still smarting from that garden scene,
I challenge God with too severe a mien;
He may have failed His meaning to express,
And when He seemed to curse have meant to bless.
W. M. Gloag
Whatever height you reach in your philosophic flights you cannot do other than begin with the familiar world. From this planet you must take your departure, and to this planet return. And on this lowly and common ground you have no need to summon to your assistance the soaring minds, the pilots of the upper air. The values of existence, our joys and sorrows, are not calculated or determined for us by the philosophers, the theologians and the moralists. In respect of these values we can make our own estimates, and do very well without them. They are no better informed than we are. You and I are here their equals, and can judge for ourselves. Aristotle, Spinoza and the rest, let them for the moment keep their distance. No one, however sagacious or eminent, can argue us out of our personal experiences. Thought has its own domain and can reach upward to interpretations, but neither science nor philosophy has discovered the universe, nor the earth on which we dwell, nor the hopes and fears we find within our hearts. The familiar old earth supports us all, plain men and thinkers. What is all this talk about proof? Shall we go about to prove what we already know, that we are alive, and are aware of the surrounding elements and entities, or have souls to enjoy or grieve over our condition?
I am not wholly unacquainted with the books of the famous speculators. I delight in their society. Under their subtle and eloquent guidance, I have made many excursions into the empyrean of the Absolute. I have some little knowledge of the various metaphysical gambits, the opening moves, the Platonic, the Cartesian, the Kantian. Their proceedings remind me of the pretty battles between the professional condottieri of the Middle Ages, the manoeuvring for position, the checks and counterchecks. Like myself, many have found these campaigns excellent reading, the tourneys in which skill and dexterity the most admirable are displayed, in which laurels are won, in which no wounds are fatal. As in the Gothic Elysium the warriors fight all day, slay or are slain, but spring to life and strength again to renew the joyous struggle on the morrow. On these bloodless fields the sharp, salt air of life’s sea is scarcely felt; we are far inland in a sheltered and secluded vale.
But after the pageant return you must to the tedium of daily existence, to the never-varying, everlasting human situation. We may deny, for example, the reality of the world of the senses, but we must live in it. And of these aristocratic and remote encounters the plain man is hardly aware. How difficult would it be for him to believe that ingenious minds still busy themselves to disprove the existence of the soul or self, of which you and I are so poignantly conscious, resolving it into other and less reputable things, in order that it may be of small account when so resolved. Or, that still they go about with equal industry to dilute seas and mountains, continents and nebulae into atoms or electrons, and finally by still more determined analysis into undifferentiated Space-Time. For despite these Herculean labours things seem to remain much as they were, to impose upon us, to wear their well-known faces, and to work their old effects. The sun rises and sets, the tides rise and fall. Men eat and drink and take their pleasures as if nothing had happened. And when our souls and selves are dissolved away under the metaphysical scrutiny, we continue to be aware of ourselves, of the world around us, to hope, enjoy and suffer, and believe ourselves alive. How fascinating it all is!
Yet the plain man has in the end the best of it. He pays no attention, and everything drifts back to him. Nothing, for example, could be more unscientific than to assume the existence of mind before it is demonstrated. Let us proceed then without minds to the discussion. The plain man is in some fashion aware that you cannot. He is dimly conscious that the very questions that are asked, the form given to them, the logic employed, are his questions and his logic. Questions, he vaguely supposes, are asked only by minds, and logic not employed by the cleverest sticks or stones. So he remains indifferent and inattentive, knowing, without much pondering of the matter, that there is no alternative but to begin with his experiences here and now, and with this particular planet, his home. A secure habitation no one can call it. At any moment it may fail us. Yet, however precarious our tenancy, we are not trespassers in the world. It may be far from satisfying, nevertheless it somehow belongs to us and we to it. Some power not ourselves has been at work, and here we are.
The first and fundamental wonder is existence itself. That I should be alive, conscious, a person, a part of the whole, that I should have emerged out of nothingness, that the Void should have given birth not merely to things, but to me. Among the many millions who throughout the centuries have crossed the stage of time probably not more than a handful have looked about them with astonishment, or found their own presence within the visible scene in any way surprising. Our immediate impressions and requirements, the daily doings, comings and goings of others like ourselves absorb in the years of infancy all our attention. Life steals imperceptibly upon us, without any sudden shock or sense of strangeness. How quietly we accommodate ourselves to the situation! In our early years, when all is fresh and new, we take the miracle for granted, and find abundant occupation and endless variety of interest. We are busy looking about us, and grow accustomed to living, and nothing appears startling to which we are accustomed. Thus it is that in the existence of the world or ourselves there appears for most of us no cause for amazement. So far from asking with Coleridge the unanswerable question, ‘Why should there be anything at all, any world at all?’ we accept life without wonder and without curiosity. One might almost imagine that we were here on well-known ground, and but revisiting a country with which we had a previous acquaintance. Yet let the mind once awake—and distress of mind is the great awakener of mind—and this emergence from the womb of the immeasurable universe rises to its full significance, to tower above all other thoughts, the wonder of wonders, beyond digestion into speech. To find oneself a member of a particular family and society, among innumerable other families and societies, engaged in a round of activities, to feel, think, love, hate, to eat, drink, sleep, to be involved in all these multitudinous affairs, not knowing in the least why this state of things should be ours, how we came into possession of this peculiar nature, acquired these needs, powers and passions, how or why we were launched upon this most extraordinary adventure—once give way to thoughts like these, and you are a prisoner for life, the prisoner of philosophy. But you will remain one of a negligible minority. And if it be a delusion to suppose that many human beings have been concerned with such musings, it is equally a delusion to suppose they have been spiritually minded, anxious about the state of their souls, eager for communion with God. All but the slenderest of minorities have been immersed in a struggle for existence, for material satisfactions, have sought the pleasures of the senses, or followed after power or wealth. Most have died, whatever their pursuits, in the full vigour of their sensuality, and all in the full tide of their ignorance. If there has been one God universally acknowledged, universally worshipped, in all ages and countries, it is money.
What is here?
‘Gold? yellow, precious, glittering gold?’
The inhabitants of Norwich in 1650 petitioned Parliament to grant them the land and other materials ‘of that vast and altogether useless cathedral of Norwich’ towards the building of a workhouse and repairing piers.
However it came about, here we find ourselves, and in many and most delicately balanced ways, adjusted to the business in hand. Had the adjustment been perfect, had the whole worked without friction, as the earth moves through the heavens without a disturbing ripple, our lives like those of the plants, without desire or pain, possibly a dim sense of happiness, a gentle, unruffled dream might have been ours. Nature appears to have begun, if she ever did begin, her great undertaking with insensate things, and it mattered not at all what she did with them. Whirling suns, seas, mountains, even plants, trees, flowers of all varieties might have come into and passed out of existence without disturbance of the great calm of eternity. But with the entrance upon the scene of that disturbing visitor, the soul, that singular entity which suffers and enjoys, with the coming of beings capable of sharp pains and acute desires, there arose a formidable situation. These entities sought satisfaction for their wishes and avoidance of suffering. They became struggling creatures, in possession of life, but not the life they desired. Every man goes about arm in arm with disappointment. They discovered a harsh limit to their power over things. They found an enemy in the field, an evil thing, figured in all religions as the Adversary, the Opponent, the ἀντὶ θεόν, Ahriman in the Persian system, Lucifer or Satan in the Christian.
How unfortunate, some theologians tell us, that man gave way to mental curiosity, and so forfeited his happy lot in the Garden of Eden, rising to a level of intelligence above the lowlier, unaspiring animals, content with pasture, with the satisfactions of food and sex. They fared better, and ours, but for the great aboriginal catastrophe, would have been a like existence, without expectations or searchings of heart, without souls embittered by fruitless desires. The knowledge of good and evil was the fatal departure from the original design—Nature’s error, or, as in the Christian view, the fault of man himself. The pursuit of wisdom brought misery, and to intelligence was attached a penalty.
There is a saying that nature does nothing in vain. Yet if she created automatic machines, and some thinkers like the behaviourists insist we are no more, why did she proceed to the blunder, for assuredly a blunder it was, of conferring upon them an unnecessary sensitivity to pain and pleasure? Without sensitivity machines work very well. How much better had she been content with insensate things. But we are not stones or trees, and in making sensitive beings nature went clean out of her way. Consciousness is an unpardonable blot upon her scheme, and for this philosophy an inexplicable enigma. So it is that, in the midst of nature, man appears not as her child, but as a changeling. Exiled from his native home of innocence, elevated to kingly rank in the creation, the bond between mother and son was snapped. She reared a disappointed and rebellious child, a critic of his parent, judging her morals detestable, counselling, as did Huxley, resistance to her rule and defiance of her authority. Cosmic nature, he declares, is ‘no school of virtue’, but the headquarters of its enemy.
That the world is not to their mind has never ceased to surprise, if not to exasperate the philosophers. Its pattern displeases them, and they would remould it nearer to their hearts’ desire. Some religions think it past mending, but the passion for reforming the world and one’s neighbours has afflicted all the schools of thought, nor has it yet been abandoned. Yet the patterns they would substitute have never been divulged. The most dissatisfied are chary of offering their alternative and superior worlds, nor does it appear that they know of any with which our own unfavourably compares. By some natural talent they perceive its deficiencies, but the plan of operations is kept a secret. Alfonso the Wise of Spain, indeed, remarked that ‘he could have suggested improvements in the universe had the Creator consulted him’. Unfortunately at that moment a terrible thunderstorm burst over the Alcazar, and there is no record of his proposals, if he had any.
The world has been called theatrum Dei, God’s theatre. And if we were merely players on the stage, repeating words put into our mouths, performing actions assigned to us, and like them really unconcerned, appearing to suffer and yet not suffering, the situation were beyond rebuke. It is unhappily quite otherwise. Feeling entered the world and let loose a torrent of ills—the sick heart, the ailing body, the distressed mind.
All thoughts that rive the heart are here, and all are vain,
Horror, and scorn, and hate, and fear, and indignation.
It is a curious speculation, yet not irrelevant to our present enquiry, how human lots are cast, so strangely varied they are. You are born, and no reasons given, a man or a woman, an Arab or an Andaman islander, an African pygmy or an Egyptian Pharaoh, a Chinese coolie or an English gentleman, a St. Thomas or an Ivan the Terrible. You are ushered into the world in the Stone Age, the fifth or fifteenth century, a vegetarian or a cannibal, of base or noble stock, the child of half-witted parents or of Viking breed, an imbecile or a fanatic. You inherit, according to the accident of your birth, a family blood-feud, a belief in Voodoo and a string of fantastic fetishes, or a Christian creed of love and charity. You are a warrior or a serf as Heaven decrees, are exposed as an infant born in ancient Sparta, die in middle life bitten by a poisonous snake in India, or live a respectable German merchant to a ripe old age. One of a million million possible lots is yours. Is it accidental, an act of God, or, as some have conjectured, a selection made by yourself in a previous state? How profound a mystery lies behind these so manifestly unequal conditions of human existence! And what justice is it, if one man languishes most of his life on a bed of sickness, and another enjoys health and happiness or sits upon an imperial throne? Nature strews these inequalities of place, time, heredity, circumstances with a monstrous partiality. On what principles you are allotted good looks, a musical ear, a sunny temper, an affectionate disposition, a talent for figures, or denied these qualities does not appear. We are, the maxim runs, as God made us, and there the matter perforce must end.
Nor is it only our nature and disposition that we inherit, but the habits and traditions of some community, a Pagan, a Buddhistic or a Mohammedan creed, the mos majorum, the custom of our ancestors; and, with few exceptions, by these our lives are governed. These bodies of ours, as it would seem at haphazard distributed, are not negligible, or to be treated with cavalier indifference. From their tiresome demands and complaints there is no escape. They do very much as they please with us, often lame our best intentions and enforce our most sensual. To keep them in repair is a constant anxiety. What a despot is the stomach, whose caprices make us moody or cheerful, bland or irritable. Listen to the enormous laughter of Rabelais while he recounts the indignities to which the body subjects the mind, making indecency an intimate part of our lives. He mocks at nature, which delights in shaming us. Our pride revolts, we are nauseated by ourselves, as was Swift, or nervously and shamefacedly avert our eyes from the dishonours we must endure.
If nature gave us logic, she appears to be singularly lacking in what she bestows. For she herself drives no straight furrow, and exhibits an inconsistency which in a man would be accounted madness. Her habit is to turn upon herself, wound and afflict herself, undoing with her left hand what she has done with her right. What more inharmonious than that she should send hailstones to the destruction of her own blossoms and fruits, tempests upon the crops she has herself ripened to the harvest? The meteorite that, in 1908, fell in Siberia, about 100 tons in weight, destroyed the forest in which it fell for a radius of about forty miles. The lightning splits the tree, and sets the forest aflame. The sand of the desert or the encroaching sea turns fertile fields into barren wastes, and reduces whole populations to distress or starvation. It is her own features which nature thus rends and mangles. Wild beasts destroy 3000 persons every year in India, and 20,000 die of snake-bite. There are 700 million sufferers from malaria in the world. Forty per cent, of the children born in Central China perish from cold or famine before they are a year old.
When people talk of nature, what do they mean? Is it the immensity, the sublimity, the grandeur, or the indifference, the inhumanity she exhibits, of which they are thinking? We know her wonders and splendours, we know also her disorders, her cataclysms, her tempests. Nature is everything we admire and fear, everything we love, and everything we hate. She is ‘the sum of all phenomena’. A perfectly ordered world, exact as a geometrical pattern, is the world desired by the logical mind. But how different the reality. Before its irrationalities reason trembles. The eruption of Krakatoa, in 1783, destroyed 40,000 human beings; the Quito, in 1797, also 40,000; the Lisbon earthquake, in 1755, twice that number. Is human life a bubble? Within the present century, in 1908, and again, in 1920, similar disturbances in Sicily and China eliminated half a million lives in sixty seconds. The eruption of Mount Pelé, in less than a quarter of an hour, laid the capital of Martinique in ruins, with the loss of 30,000 lives. During the Yangtse floods in 1931 over a million perished by drowning. Etna wakes and Messina perishes. Islands are submerged with their human freights, like ships at sea. In 1929 Ninaforu, in the Pacific, simply disappeared with all its inhabitants into the ocean depths. Would these things be ‘if the King of the universe were our friend’? The larks are not always in the sky on an April morning.
Professor Bosanquet thought it exceedingly improbable that an earthquake would destroy London. His reason for thinking so was not a geological one. It would be, he believed, contrary to ‘the world-wisdom’. Such a preference by nature for London over Tokio or California is indeed very flattering to us as a nation, and very comforting. But what are we to think of a philosopher who says such things? You say nothing: you close his book.
Nature does not seem to know her own mind, or else she speaks an equivocal language. Are her powers, perhaps, limited, and hers an imperium divided among satraps, or governors, not wholly in subordination to her central authority? For if not, why should there be a discord between her animate and inanimate provinces? The human mind looks for unity, yet everywhere in nature’s realm contending powers are in conflict. You have the physical world indifferent to living things, unconcerned whether they exist or do not exist. In its turn, upon the insecure foundation of the body, the living organism, rises the mind, incapable, it would seem, of any independent existence. So that thought, love, hope, the soul and its affections, the whole intellectual structure of human life, are perilously poised in a trembling insecurity upon the material elements, themselves in continual flux.
Were nature constant in her intentions we might hope to understand them, but how at odds with herself this Lady Bountiful, mother of all living, when she counsels one species of her children to feed upon the bodies of others, not less her own creation, providing an armoury the most ingenious, claws and fangs and suckers, instruments of death, that one tribe of her offspring might the better murder the members of another, a device, to our poor uninstructed vision, neither lovely nor divine. Nature is no believer in disarmament. The bird preys upon the insect and the worm, the glow-worm feeds upon the snail, the ichneumon lays its eggs upon the caterpillar, which, when the grubs emerge, will serve as their food. There are animals which seem an incarnation of malice, like that dweller in darkness, the blood-sucking vampire bat. How difficult to think of the author of the Sermon on the Mount, how difficult to think of Christ as the son of the God of nature! Nature encourages internecine strife. Nor has she any favourites among her creatures, unless it be the insect tribe. There are not less than ten million varieties of them in existence. ‘In India alone the loss of crops, of timber, and of animal products by insect damage is estimated at over 150 million pounds annually, and the death roll due to insect-borne diseases at over a million and a half lives.’1
Life is one throughout the universe, yet its parts are in conflict. Nature has her racks and thumbscrews. You cannot instruct her in any of the torturer’s or executioner’s arts. There is no kindness in the sea, no benevolence in the forest. If you complain that men are a cruel breed, you need not enquire whence they derived the propensity. It is inherited, and from the mother’s side.
Perhaps these things should not be mentioned. Truth is a thorny rose. Sentimental writers do not dwell upon this theme. These star-gazers do not remind us of the bellum omnium contra omnes. How tiresome are the one-eyed philosophies. There will be brave men born after us who will not attempt to build up their spiritual lives on a diet of lies. All forms of life, all organisms in which it is manifested, are engaged in an unceasing struggle to maintain themselves against the disintegrating forces of nature. All are in conflict with each other for the means of life, clan against clan, individual against individual. Each exists at the expense of others, and keeps its foothold only by success over the rest. Here is a telegram from South Australia, dated Nov. 6, 1934. ‘It is estimated that the farmers in Adelaide will lose at least three-quarters of their crops through the depredations of grass-hoppers, which are advancing in uncontrollable swarms on a front of 250 miles.’ How deep it goes, this warfare, you may conjecture if you remind yourself that the very trees of the forest are battling with each other for the light of the sun, and that the plants have their defensive armour, the rose and thistle their thorns, the nettle its sting. Make your heart iron within you, when you remember that to live you must kill, either plants or animals. ‘To live, my Lucilius, is to make war.’ Hunger for food, hunger for life, of which war is merely the continuation, are the presiding issues.
It is no doubt necessary to think in terms of right and wrong, yet how much more convincing would be our moralists if they began at the beginning, if they could bring themselves to think first in terms of life and death. Who is ignorant that good and evil go everywhere hand in hand, in the closest, indeed inseparable, partnership? The misfortunes of one community make the fortunes of another. If England secures the world markets, they are lost to Germany. If oil becomes the necessary and universal fuel, the oil-producing districts flourish at the expense of those which have none. Among the competitors for a post, or the hand of a lady, one only can prove successful, and not invariably the most deserving. The magistrate and police depend for their livelihood on the swindler and the burglar, the physician upon the sick and disabled. Scarcity of food brings destitution to the poor and high prices to the farmer, and the higher a nation’s standard of intellect and skill the worse for the incapable and unintelligent.
We are not sure of what best nourishes, or what damages, the delicate machinery of nerve and brain. We guess at the causes of our physical lassitude. Poisons circulate in our blood from origins unknown. We are surrounded by unseen foes. Nor are our souls less vulnerable than our bodies. Affections spring up in us only to be thwarted or forbidden, or we discover too late that they have been foolishly misplaced and are betrayed. Our very sympathies lead us astray. We are imposed upon by falsehoods and depressed by misunderstandings. The whole region of the emotions is subject to doubts, misgivings, confusion, and those who have shallow natures, feeling little, appear to be best suited for life. Instinct and desire point one way and mature reflection another. Duties conflict not merely with our wishes, but with opposing duties, so that we are in doubt where our loyalty is first due, which cause we should espouse, to which of the arguing voices we should give ear. And, do what we will, to live at all without inflicting injuries upon others is well-nigh, if not altogether impossible. ‘A terrible thing is life’, says Socrates in the Gorgias (δεινός ὃ βίος). He thought it a disease, and left with his friend, Crito, a commission to sacrifice a cock as a thank-offering for his deliverance.
Yet within this ‘odious scene of violence and cruelty’, as Mill, rising to a moral superiority over the universe, called it, there runs a counter current. So that in nature’s speech there is an equivocation, an irony, an irony clearly discerned, with that unclouded vision of theirs, by the Greeks, and even by the simpler peoples of the earth. A recent traveller reports the philosophy of an African tribe: ‘They said that although God is good, and wishes good for everybody, unfortunately he has a half-witted brother, who is always interfering with what he does. This half-witted brother keeps on obtruding himself, and does not give God a chance.’ How kindly a view of Satan! And what is irony? It is a double-speaking, it is language which, since it is open to two interpretations, hides the speaker’s meaning, in which a sense is wrapped other than the obvious sense, language which says one thing and yet means another. There is the irony, too, of circumstances, promising what they do not perform, or it may be performing what they do not promise, or by the event baffling confident expectation. For this ironical language nature has a fondness. Observe that this nature which wars upon herself is the nature which constructs the exquisite fabric of the living organism, and with a physician’s arts ministers to the diseases she inflicts, produces in the body anti-toxins to defeat the toxins, administers anaesthetics, and exercises a vis medicatrix all her own. How difficult to recognise in the ferocities we see around us the subtle power which made the brain, which elaborated with consummate exactness the mechanism of the heart and lungs, all the devices by which the body maintains its existence! That nature should create a world full of difficulties and dangers, and there-upon proceed to place within it fabrics of an infinite delicacy and complexity to meet these very dangers and difficulties is a contradiction that baffles the understanding. With a cunning past all human thought she solves the problems she has, as it were, absent-mindedly set herself. The flood and the earthquake have no consideration for the plant or animal, yet nature which sends the flood and earthquake has provided, with foresight or in a dream, for the living things they destroy. She both smiles and frowns upon her own creation, and is at once friendly and unfriendly. Like a scarlet thread it runs through her dominion, this inconsistency. Side by side with the undeniable and admirable adjustment between things organic and inorganic, you have the hostility, the discordance. What wonder that men, bewildered by this inexplicable procedure, have supposed her governments distributed among a hierarchy of squabbling deities, persecuting or protecting this or that race of men—Zeus the Greeks, Jehovah the Jews? What wonder they supposed even the trees to be the better of protecting deities, the olive Athena, the vine Dionysus? Ah, nature! subtle beyond all human subtlety, enigmatic, profound, life-giver and life-destroyer, nourishing mother and assassin, inspirer of all that is best and most beautiful, of all that is most hideous and forbidding!
That the world is a unity the philosophers and men of science reiterate with a wearisome persistence. That it is united, they have the sense not to proclaim. How the world became disunited they have not told us. Yet in this procession of time and tears it is not so much the rivers of blood which flow through history, it is the broken hearts that appal us. What elicits human horror and indignation is not so much the suffering that the strong may with courage endure as the suffering at random inflicted upon the weak and innocent and defenceless. I read not long since of a child, who trustingly looked up the chimney to see the coming of Santa Claus. Her clothing took fire, and she was burnt to death. A painful world we might school ourselves to combat, were it only rational, but the conjunction of pain and senselessness is hard to bear. Nor would the heroic race of men, ‘toil-worn since being began’, shrink from grief and wounds were it only assigned a noble task. But nature prescribes no tasks. She calls for no volunteers for a great essay. For the asking she might have millions. She points willing climbers to no Everest. The discovery of the goal—by far the most difficult task—she leaves to us. We are mountaineers by nature, but born blind, and must find for ourselves the Himalayan peak, if there be any peak, we are built to ascend, or else while away the time till the great axe falls, and the futilities are done with. Go where you will through nature, you find no directions for travellers. You choose your path, uncounselled and at your own peril, and the unlikely track may prove to be the best. To be clear-sighted is often to be short-sighted, as when the molluscs and crustaceans, protecting themselves with heavy defensive armour, entered with all their care and caution a blind alley, while naked, unaccommodated man, selecting the more dangerous path, advanced to the headship of living creatures.
Life is a unique experience. There is nothing with which to compare it, no measure of its value in terms of some other thing, and money will not purchase it. Yet with this pearl of price we know not what to do. Schopenhauer loves to dwell, in illustration of his pessimistic thesis upon the boredom of life, and cites card-playing, a kill-time device, as ‘quite peculiarly an indication of the miserable side of humanity’. That mortals should desire immortality, and yet find difficulty in passing an afternoon—if you have a fancy for paradoxes, here is a pretty one. We contemplate eternity without horror, and find an hour of our own society intolerable. ‘How dreary it is to be alive, gentlemen!’ And how poverty-stricken is the human soul, which, even when armed with supernatural powers, can find no occupation for itself. Marlowe’s Faustus, with Mephistopheles to gratify his every wish, can make nothing of his transcendent opportunity.
Tacitus draws a terrible picture of the taedium vitae which in imperial times descended upon the Roman aristocracy:
In his cool hall, with haggard eyes,
The Roman noble lay:
He drove abroad, in furious guise,
Along the Appian Way.
He made a feast, drank fierce and fast,
And crown’d his head with flowers—
No easier nor no quicker pass’d
The impracticable hours.
Or if, by good fortune, we inherit a nature abundant in resource, which finds every moment full of charm, and think the world a divine playground, another shadow darkens the windows of the soul. As the child, enchanted with the fairy spectacle upon the stage, the joyous bustle and the glittering lights, whispered to its mother—‘Mother, this is not going to end soon, is it?’ we are startled to discover that
in the very temple of delight
Veil’d melancholy has her sovran shrine.
To foresee the end of happiness poisons the springs of happiness. It will end, and soon. We are permitted an hour at the pageant and the curtain falls.
It may be that, although appearances are against her, nature meant well by us, that her powers were limited. She has done what she could, giving us a ‘second best’, since the best was beyond her. It lay within her strength to confer life, but not to preserve it. Yet one cannot refrain from asking, was it necessary that man’s superiority should prove his bane, that his aspirations should end in the grave? To create immortal longings in the ephemeral being of an hour, to implant in him passions never to be gratified, for knowledge never to be attained, for understanding never to be fulfilled, to give him imagination, a fatal dowry, since it enables him to contrast his true lot with a better, the poverty of his possessions with the abundance of his cravings—was this necessary? It appears either a refinement of malicious irony, or a promise of fulfilment, but which? The gods are silent.
Or is it that some Force, too wise, too strong,
Even for yourselves to conjure or beguile,
Sweeps earth, and heaven, and men, and gods along,
Like the broad volume of the insurgent Nile?
And the great powers we serve, themselves may be
Slaves of a tyrannous necessity? …
Oh, wherefore cheat our youth, if thus it be,
Of one short joy, one lust, one pleasant dream?
Stringing vain words of powers we cannot see,
Blind divinations of a will supreme;
Lost labour! when the circumambient gloom
But hides, if Gods, Gods careless of our doom?
There is, among her inconsistencies, another persuasive artifice of nature, for which, by any mechanical philosophy it is difficult, indeed, to account—the artifice by which she induced men to interest in a future they could not hope to see. She persuades them to self-sacrifice, to loss of life for their offsprings for their race, their country, to martyrdom for their faiths, for shadowy, intangible notions, less substantial than gossamer. By what arrangement of cranks, wheels and levers did she cozen this creature of a day to look beyond his own instant profit, his obvious gain? Why should hope have a place, heroism a place, renunciation a place in this automaton? Is cajolery among her talents? Manifestly the Spartans at Thermopylae were flattered to their ruin by a ridiculous pride of race.
View life as a whole, exert all your powers of fancy, take all history into your account, the embarrassing contradiction remains. On all sides it raises its sphinx-like, ironical countenance. Another and final illustration will suffice. At the heart of existence there lies an undeniable sweetness, which no philosophy has fathomed, and no railing accusation against life can dislodge. The complaints against it are legion. In all ages and societies goes up the bitter cry, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ ‘All that exists’, wrote Leopardi, ‘is evil, that anything exists is an evil; everything exists only to achieve evil; existence itself is an evil, and destined to evil. There is no other good than non-existence.’
So much for life: not a pennyworth of value anywhere. Yet the doctrines and religions, and they are numerous, which condemn existence, offer no adequate explanation of the clinging attraction for a state they censure and profess to despise. From this so undesirable a possession their adherents are, for the most part, curiously unwilling to part. ‘What sort of a pessimist is this’, asks Nietzsche, ‘who plays the flute?’ The pessimists are not alone in vilifying life. They have the support of Christian preachers. ‘The whole world’, says Donne, ‘is but a universal churchyard, but our common grave.’ Christianity has little good to say of life, yet how reluctant the best Christians are to become angels. Like the worldlings they, too, are intoxicated with the pleasures of sense. They marry and are given in marriage. They succumb at times to song and laughter. Cheerfulness keeps lurking in odd corners of the horrid gloom. There is some magic at work here. Is it possible that something may be said for this vale of sorrows? Though not to be compared with the ineffable bliss we demand, yet as an alternative to nothing a case for existence can be stated. In fairness to nature you must enter this natural sweetness in the ledger of your account with her. The ecstasy of lovers, the joy in activity, the glow, the radiance, the sunlight, the perfume—omit these, and it is a caricature you have drawn, not the landscape. There is a music in the air.
Riding adown the country lanes;
The larks sang high—
O heart, for all thy griefs and pains
Thou shalt be loath to die.
Many philosophers have been defeatists. Diogenes and Zeno, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, Schopenhauer and Spinoza. Ἀπάθεια, ἀταραξία, nil admirari, indifference, impassivity, passionlessness, they are all one. Stoicism, Epicureanism, Taoism, how many creeds and doctrines are, in their essence, withdrawals from life? For them it is not an adventure but a weary pilgrimage. They take no pleasure in it. Sick of time, they take refuge in eternity. And we seem forced to the strange conclusion that Paganism suits world conditions better. Perhaps it should, indeed, be expected. For why should the haters of life be more at home in it than its lovers? The creed of the Northmen, for example, left room for activity and prowess, for skill and enterprise, for courage and adventure. They had a liking for the risks and dangers of existence, which gave a zest to living, and for a worthy antagonist, who put them on their mettle.
Life is like the sea, never at rest, untamed, moody, capricious, perilous. Many a man who knows the sea has sworn, and sworn again, that once on land he would never more embark upon so inclement, so treacherous, so hateful an element. And few who have so sworn have not heard with aching hearts her call, and longed for her bitter and incomparable society. Like life she lays a spell upon them, a spell not resident in her smiles, though smile she can, nor in her calm, though, like life, she, too, has her seasons of calm, her sheltered lagoons and quiet havens. Men are said to love flattery. The sea never flatters. They are said to love ease. She offers toil. Like life she deals in every form of danger, and many modes of death—famine, thirst, fire, cold, shipwreck. Like life she strips men of their pretensions and vanities, exposes the weakness of the weak and the folly of the fool. Wherein then lies the fascination, against which the soft Lydian airs cannot with men that are men prevail? It flings a challenge and human nature rises to a challenge. Men are by nature striving creatures, heroically stubborn, as is the mind itself.
Still nursing the unconquerable hope,
Still clutching the inviolable shade.
They love best what they do for themselves, for what they themselves make they have a great affection; what is given them out of charity they value less. The world seems somehow so made as to suit best the adventurous and courageous, the men who, like Nelson, wear all their stars, like Napoleon’s marshals their most splendid uniforms, not that they may be less but more conspicuous and incur greater dangers than their fellows. Leonidas at Thermopylae, resolved to stand and die for his country’s cause, wished to save two lads by sending them home with a message to Sparta. He was met by the answer, ‘We are not here to carry messages, but to fight’. However it comes about, such men are more inspiring figures than the defeatists.
Matthew Arnold quotes with admiration Pope’s rendering of the passage in Homer in which Sarpedon urges his friend Glaucus into the fight, the passage which in the original Lord Granville quoted on his death-bed.
Could all our care elude the gloomy grave
Which claims no less the fearful than the brave,
For lust of fame I should not vainly dare
In fighting fields, nor urge thy soul to war;
But since, alas! ignoble age must come,
Disease, and death’s inexorable doom;
The life which others pay, let us bestow,
And give to fame what we to nature owe.
Cogito, ergo sum, said Descartes. ‘I think, therefore I am.’ He desired a platform, or rather an undeniable proposition as the foundation of his philosophic thought. His successors have not found it either undeniable or sufficient. They have rejected, too, such alternatives as ‘I act, therefore I am’. ‘I desire, therefore I am.’ Let me suggest still another. No philosophers, or men of science, have so far had the hardihood, as far as I know, to deny us our pains. They relieve us of all else. They have taken from us our personality, our freedom, our souls, our very selves. They have, however, left us our sorrows. Let us take, then, as our foundation the proposition ‘I suffer, therefore I am’. And let us add to it the converse and equally true statement, ‘I am, therefore I suffer’. The privilege, if it be a privilege, of existence is ours, and we have paid the price required. We have discharged our debts. We have not had something for nothing. We have free minds, and can look around us with a smile. Nothing can any longer intimidate us.
- 1. The World of Nature, by H. C. Knapp-Fisher, p. 295.