Though the bleak wings of Fear oppress my sky,
Though sharp her talons vex my shrinking flesh,
I would not bid her fly.
While Fear remains my Hope can yet abide,
My heart still beat, my senses comprehend,
The gods be satisfied.
But should Fear pass on some wild panic night,
What if I saw in the calm, certain dawn
My Hope had fled the light?
T. A. COLLINS.
To all our queries nature answers never a word. ‘God makes nothing but riddles’, says a character in one of Dostoievsky’s novels, and like all travellers before us we have found it so. What disturbs the philosophers, what perplexes the moralists, what, in brief, calls for explanation is, in Nietzsche’s phrase, ‘the antagonism at the heart of the world.’ These excellent men cry out for a harmony between their surroundings and themselves, and to their distress encounter a disharmony. Through the whole realm of creation it runs, the inner and manifest contradiction, which puts them out of countenance. How is this? they enquire. The work of God, the Almighty, should be—who can deny?—without a flaw, ‘one entire and perfect chrysolite’. Unhappily it presents itself to their eyes, and to ours, as imperfect, darkened, not by an occasional and passing cloud, but by a canopy of gloom, infected by manifold confusions and disorders. The evidence for a divine and stable government of the world is far to seek, and they wring their hands. A profound and inexpugnable discord appears to pervade, to be, indeed, a part of the structure, an ineradicable constituent in the very nature and constitution of things. The universe is undeniably at war with itself, and ruled, if by any powers, by rival powers. Faced with so deep-seated a disorder, for what can the poor mortals, its inhabitants, hope?
The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail.
It has been borne in upon the simplest souls in all ages, as clearly as upon philosophers, that if a creative and beneficent principle is at work in the world, a destructive and apparently maleficent principle is also at work, equal in power, equal in the extent of its dominion. Save to the eye of faith the universe displays a dual personality, kindly and cruel, philanthropic and inhuman. If God is in evidence, Satan is also in evidence. Ormuz and Ahriman are in array against each other, the powers of light and darkness, of organisation and disorganisation, construction and destruction, health and disease, life and death. Who has not heard in the rhythm of nature the threatening note, the deep, disquieting roll of her thunder? There is terror in the world as well as beauty, horrors are mingled with its sublimities. It both captivates and alarms. Within the swirling vortex, the endless coming and going of events, within the circumference of the greater motions, the convulsions in the heavens and upheavals in the fevered earth, there are on the human level corresponding upheavals and convulsions, alarms and excursions, everlasting changes and perturbations.
So between the starry dome
And the floor of plains and seas,
I have never felt at home,
Never wholly been at ease.
Such is the world as we know it, and such the conditions of existence: nor can the most soaring imagination provide us with an alternative model, or even assure us of its possibility. Things as they are wear the countenance of fate, the unbending brow of necessity, and who are we to quarrel with the gods?
It has occurred to few philosophers that the discords may be a factor in the scheme, that the situation may have its advantages, a brighter side, and may be even a necessary condition of existence. They have seldom reflected that this clash of opposites may have brought it about that we have a universe at all, and that we ourselves, its offspring, are in being, that from this dark soil of conflict creation sprang. So far we may advance with assurance, the disharmony has at least banished an otherwise incurable and intolerable monotony. But for these oppositions in nature and human life, ‘the world-wide warfare of the eternal Two’, nothing had taken place, all were still, sunk in a motiveless, motionless stagnation. The busy scene of events had been a desert of idleness. Movement implies resistance, high implies low, and light, darkness. If there be no East there is no West, if there be no North there can be no South Pole. There are good kind souls who suppose it possible to have good without evil. But liking involves disliking, and approval disapproval. The antithesis is everlasting and unavoidable. From the clash of opposites has arisen the world with all its varieties, its infinite diversity of creatures. They are our fathers and mothers, these Twain,
… out of which Earth and Heaven were born.
And from their mingling thence are poured abroad
The multitudinous birth of mortal things,
Knit in all forms, and wonderful to see.
In the tension of the opposites is the mainspring of the Cosmos, manifested in organic nature, as in all the circumstances and interests dispersed through the wide ways of men. Out of their great debate arise politics, art and philosophy, for the same duality is present in the central keep of the mind itself, where there is always ‘a pro and a con’, in the conflicting thoughts, the bright and dark angels that sway the course of history. You meet the cut and thrust of these duellists in the collision of wills, the quarrels and animosities, the exchanges and repartees, the sinner-hoods and sainthoods. Idem semper sentire, nihil sentire. To feel always the same is to feel nothing. If all things were alike, all men alike, all thoughts alike, what pleasure, what interest, what anything could there be? As the harmonies of the painter or musician arise out of the blending of the colours and the notes, so the mixing and mingling of its elements give to the world its values. ‘All beings have souls,’ said the Italian mathematician, Cardan, ‘even in plants the passions of Love and Hate are at work.’ ‘Could differences be abolished sweet love were slain’, as the Greek poet expressed it. And our own Blake put the matter also in a sentence. ‘Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to human existence.’
The poets have little to learn from the philosophers. Yet philosophers there have been who had sight of, and made no wry faces over the truth, who accepted human destiny with a high tranquillity of soul, and even went so far as to proclaim conflict a boon to mortals. Hesiod long ago spoke of Ἔρις, strife, as a blessing to men, ἀγαθὴ βροτοῖσι. ‘The spice of life’, said R. L. Stevenson, ‘is battle.’ But let us turn to that most penetrating of thinkers, whose every word bears the stamp of genius, the sage of Ephesus, who, five hundred years before Christ, made that thought his own.
Heraclitus, the ‘dark’ or ‘difficult’, was by birth an aristocrat and hereditary ruler of his native city. But this great original was in temper a solitary, a lover of the hills and woods, rather than of the agora, devoted his life to philosophy in preference to politics, and ended his days in the society of nature. To his sombre message he added a biting tongue, to his searching intellect a disdain of the multitude. This man had, nevertheless, the esteem of Socrates himself, to whom, it is said, Euripides gave a book by Heraclitus, and afterwards asked him what he thought of it. ‘What I have understood’, replied Socrates, ‘is good; and so, I think, is also what I have not understood; only the book requires a Delian diver to get at the meaning of it.’ The profound mind of Heraclitus foresaw from afar many concepts of modern science. He perceived the subjective factor in perception, insisted, as does the most recent physics, that all objects are in perpetual motion, though their movements are beyond our range of vision, and that if you look for truth, you should expect the unexpected. The contradictoriness, the turbulence, the centrifugal and centripetal forces, the multifarious variety and clashing currents of things, these he declared both necessary and good. Its vicissitudes and frictions are at once the essence and the salt of life. In the great arena of human enterprise men were served by antagonisms, which developed their powers and proved their mettle. There quality could be discerned, there the slave could be distinguished from the freeman. To him it seemed the human race needed the spur. That spur was resistance, opposition. In conflict men discovered their own souls, encountered obstacles, called upon all their potential strength to overcome them, and so took the mountain path to greater strength, to fame, and to godhead itself. Effortless existence was for him a term without meaning, a condition not to be found in nature. The doctrine of Heraclitus is patrician doctrine. He would not have men avoid issues, flee encounters, seek cradled felicity, or burrow in shelters. Like Nietzsche he desired them to become supermen. Of his winged sentences here are a few.
‘Homer was wrong in saying Would that strife might perish from among gods and men! He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for if his prayer were heard, everything would come to an end.’
‘We must know that war is universal and strife is right, and that through strife all things arise and pass away.’
‘But for the injustices men would not know the meaning of justice.’
‘Men do not know how what is at variance agrees with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre.’
What now is the sum of this philosophy? The law of polarity was for Heraclitus, the λόγος, the inner thought, or supreme principle of the Cosmos. All energies had their contraries, and from the strain their opposition engendered the world had arisen. In a word, no oppositions, no world. These rival forces were, in fact, the two inseparable halves of the same thing, as are the concave and convex sides of a curve, they were contrary yet complementary activities, which by their union in disunion produce an attunement, a hidden harmony, better than an open and evident. For that which strives against another in reality supports itself. As heat implies cold, justice implies injustice. Sickness it is which makes health desirable, fatigue gives sweetness to rest, evil is the buttress of good. We may go further and say things produce their opposites, good sets up a counter-current of evil and evils give rise to good.
The ruling idea of Heraclitus takes us straight to the heart of modern science. It teaches that in the absence of resistance energy has no power, and vanishes. Without two levels or states of differing potential a current of energy cannot show itself at work, or be at work. The famous law of entropy depends upon this principle. If all the particles in the physical universe reached the same degree of heat, no power could anywhere be exerted by one upon another, and nothing could ever again take place. We are reminded, too, of Newton’s saying—‘I am induced by many reasons to suspect that they’ (the phenomena of nature) ‘may all depend upon certain forces by which the particles of bodies, by some causes hitherto unknown, are either mutually impelled towards each other, or are repelled and recede from each other; which forces being unknown, philosophers have hitherto attempted the search of nature in vain.’ The conflicting energies, though at variance, are nevertheless, Heraclitus taught, in their essence one, and the contests, to which their opposition gives rise, are necessary, just and right. Their thrust and counter-thrust uphold the keystone of the great arch of existence. Think of the children’s game of see-saw. When one end of the beam is exalted, the other is depressed, yet it is the same beam.
Heraclitus held—a crucial point in philosophy—and here Plato is our witness, that the ultimate Reality is at the same time One and Many, the Many constituting the One, which it may be said is ‘both willing and unwilling to be called Zeus’, or God, since it transcends in all its aspects and attributes the parochial language of men.
For our sentimental times this doctrine has an unpalatable, even a disgusting flavour. Strife as the corner-stone of the universe, what thought could be less tolerable? Strife anywhere, at any time is for us the arch enemy, the idea of its necessity hateful, and the praise of it an abomination, a blasphemy. When Heraclitus declared strife the keystone of existence, he spoke, or did not speak the truth. Possibly you disagree with him. Do not then squander your energies in denouncing his doctrine. There is a better way of employing your time—disprove it. If you fail, there is still another resource open to you, to which I have already referred, the avenue of retreat. You may take the path recommended by the gentle, the strife-hating sages, the sufferers from a ‘spiritual agoraphobia’. You may withdraw yourself, abandon action, forsake the arena, insure your peace and salvation; you may, like Achilles, sulk in your tent, and leave the world to its fate. ‘We must release ourselves from the prison of affairs and politics,’ said Epicurus. You may become one of those beings, who, in Bishop Creighton’s pleasant phrase, are ‘as good as gold and fit for heaven, but of no earthly use’.
To retire in disgust or displeasure from the monstrous mellay of life has often been described as ‘the celestial way’. Yet, it may be asked, what is there celestial about it? Needless, I think, to remind you that a conception similar to that of Heraclitus, the sense of a rift, or fissure or dualism in nature, unconsciously felt by many men, meets us full-front in Indian philosophy. But with a difference. Thought is there concentrated on retreat, and the way of retreat proclaimed as the way of salvation. The love of life is the root of all evil. Destroy it, and your foot is on the heavenly path. Escape from the contending opposites is the wise man’s goal, to be attained, as with the Stoics, by desirelessness, a passionless impassivity, disdain alike of pleasure and of pain. Through this indifference, apatheia, ataraxia—the recipe is always the same—the emancipated soul enters into Brahma, where concern for life’s petty perturbations, its joys and sorrows, passes utterly away, and all struggles cease. ‘I will take my lodging’, says the Indian sage, ‘at the root of a tree, surrendering all things, loved as well as unloved, tasting neither grief nor pleasure, neither cherishing hope nor offering respect, free from the opposites, with neither fortune nor belongings.’
Do not disturb the saint by asking him how this state is to be distinguished from non-existence. He will not condescend to answer. The horror of life must be strong upon you when you desire to exchange it for utter nothingness. You pronounce the final condemnation of life, and of God, its architect, when you thus sentence it to death. ‘Men who love nothing in the world’—it is Buddha’s saying—‘are rich in joy and free from pain.’ This is a strange richness: it dispenses with love. And the old question for theology emerges again. What sort of God is that who creates a world from which men require to be saved? He is to save us, it seems, from Himself.
There are mystics who claim that the world is perfect, a proposition troublesome to establish. We must judge by the wits we have, and not by those we have not, with the knowledge we possess, and not with the knowledge we cannot obtain, from the evidence at our disposal, and not from that which is not supplied. There are also mystics who hate the world, but how this detestation of His creation is consistent with the love of its Creator presents an intricate knot difficult to unravel. The flight to God from the works of God has an ironical flavour. What kind of welcome in the courts of Heaven can such fugitives expect? They do not hope, one fancies, to enter the Presence, but expect rather to be somehow lost in the throng, and cease to be any more themselves.
While India fixes her gaze upon release from life’s burden by escape into the invisible and spiritual from the material present, China looks steadily at things as now they are. Indian philosophers are metaphysicians, for ever talking of the One and Supreme Reality. The Many they despise. All that we see around us is mere illusion, Maya, deception. Chinese thinkers, on the other hand, like Confucius, for centuries China’s guiding star, are realists, in whose eyes the concerns of the present have an importance. Earthly life and the ordering of its daily affairs are the paramount issues. Something, they hold, can be done to mitigate our inevitable afflictions. Think first, they counsel, of to-day, and how it may best be spent. Much is possible. Good manners, for example, are not to be despised, nor good temper. How greatly they assist to remove the asperities and frictions incident to human intercourse! And who can deny the charm of elegance, of style, the pleasure to be derived from music or verse, or a shapely vase from the hands of a cunning workman? The Chinese are connoisseurs, in delicate flavours, in rare and evanescent perfumes. A lovely flower, an exquisite profile, a choice tea, a touch of quality, wherever found, has for them its value.
Here also, in this realistic land, where the mind has taken a practical turn, and addressed itself to the urgent and immediate demands of the present moment, the needs above all other needs, if we are to live at all, of food and shelter, of some form of social organisation—here also has arisen a philosophy, which, if it does not actually echo Heraclitus, strikingly resembles and recalls his favourite thesis. To the twin opposing forces in nature the Chinese give the names of Yang and Yin. Emanating from ‘the Grand Extreme’, the Absolute or God, the indescribable and unapproachable ground of all existence, they are, we may say, its ministers or instruments, from whose contention, which is also co-operation, the world was born. Yang is the positive process, Yin the negative. You may call them also the masculine and the feminine, the active and passive, the advancing and retreating principles. Yang is the south, the sunny side, Yin the dark or shadowed. Yang is brightness and heat, Yin darkness and cold. Alternately they manifest themselves, as in the ebb and flow of the sap in vegetation. With Yang spring and summer are in the ascendent, with Yin autumn and winter. Each is, in a manner, rooted in the other, and all things partake in their partnership. The rose unfolds in the sunlight, but its roots seek the darkness of the soil. They are counterparts, neither can exist by itself alone. Together, losing or gaining in turn, they create the rhythm of events in nature. Theirs is the throbbing pulse of her heart, theirs the pendulum swing, which marks the ticking of the cosmic clock. Now the stress or accent of Yang is felt, now that of Yin. Within the human sphere of thought and action Yang is growth, joy, profit, honour, fame. Yin is decay, loss, distress, misery, ignominy. Age succeeds youth, and sleep alternates with waking. In the world’s contrapuntal music note is sustained against note, and we have a ligatured or syncopated rhythm, whose accents fall where by the ear they are least to be anticipated.
The Absolute or God, certain philosophers say, includes and harmonises the adversaries, which in the field of time are at everlasting odds. ‘The upper link of nature’s chain’, as Bacon expressed it, ‘is fastened to Jupiter’s throne.’ In the final summing up existence is to be identified with good, merged in the great Original of light or darkness, for they know not which to call it. We must wish it so, and believe it so. But this is faith. The harmony, if harmony there be, is hidden from mortal sight. The nexus between existence and good, though sought with passionate tears and prayers, has never been found, nor yet a nexus between existence and evil. The optimists and the pessimists alike have failed. Unhappily the logical bond, which should unite what is with what ought to be, in our way of thinking, is absent. We, argue as you please, are manifestly tossed upon the stormy surface of the opposing tides. Within us and without us are many witnesses that we like nature are under the rule of the contraries.
Psychology has come upon the truth that, within the soul of man, the same pair of opposites, which are at work in the great rhythms of the universe, are at work here also. It tells us, for example, that they determine our philosophies. ‘The monistic tendency belongs to the introverted attitude, the pluralistic to the extraverted.’ You find them exemplified in the L’Allegro and Il Penseroso of Milton. The spiritual problems which Shakespere has set forth in Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, exhibit phases of the inner conflict, as history displays them in the wide theatre of the world. At the crises in human life the protagonists enter, and the scene is set for their encounter.
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
The conflict may take innumerable forms, and the opposites emerge in every region of human thought and character, in all the political, theological, social controversies throughout the generations. We are, for example, not less creatures of appetite than followers of reason. We are both egoists and altruists. ‘There is a constant quarrel’, the Spaniards say, ‘between Beauty and Chastity.’ Look around you and see in society and the individual the antagonistic forces ceaselessly in action. Instances crowd upon us; in some natures the internal struggle reaches the intensity of civil war, and, as in the souls of St. Paul and Luther, though waged within a single breast, it may pass on its decision, with formidable and revolutionary results into the world of public events, and alter the destinies of mankind.1 On the one side you have each man’s natural devotion to himself, his own personality and identity, displayed in his love of life and self-preserving instincts, in the pursuit of private aims, and in the fear of death, which puts an end to them—impulses the moralist, for all his efforts, can never uproot. On the other side a deep desire for a firmer support than, in the roaring flux of things, his own powers provide, a longing for a refuge, for a merging of his frail, separate individuality in a corporate whole, for a firm foundation in the changeless, for the strong arms of the everlasting: the longing of the spirit, which is the essence of all religions, to return after its Wanderjahre, and become a partaker in God’s peace. The love of life and the hatred of life are the two great moods of the human soul. Between these poles life swings, between the desire for personal activity amid the shining things of time, and the desire for the calm of eternity, the desire to be on the journey, to be up and doing, and the desire to be at the journey’s end. Not in individuals only; you will see whole races of men on the great highway, going and returning, outward bound or homeward bound. You will find them consumed with the passion for enterprise, intent upon life, its bustle, animation, novelties, encounters. And you will find them weary, desiring only, absorption in some harmonious unity, the battle over. And throughout it all we have the good souls who direct their anger against God that He made such a world, and the other good souls incensed against their fellow men that they pursue their private ends, and will not unite to regain Paradise.
In these moods of acceptance and rejection you hear the beat of nature’s heart. The endless dialogue of which life consists, the likings and dislikings, meetings and partings, loves and hates, correspond to something in the universe itself. Look where you will, the contraries, the antinomies confront you—the animate and the inanimate, heat and cold, summer and winter, day and night, body and spirit, man and woman, thought and the thing, appearance and reality, the conscious and the unconscious, the limited and the boundless, continuity and discontinuity, time and eternity. From the contention of the opposites comedy is born as well as tragedy, the preposterous and ludicrous, the absurdities and humours, the fantastic topsy-turviness of things, not less than the calamities and catastrophes. The sweet and bitter waters are from the same spring. I submit to you that life is a greater thing than the moralists have perceived, and that the poets see it in its true dimensions. When in Henry V we hear of Mistress Quickly’s death, and Pistol’s disgrace, when we hear that Nym and Bardolph have been hanged, how many of us are so much in love with virtue as to rejoice? ‘I believe’, said Dr. Johnson, sturdy moralist though he was, ‘that every reader regrets their departure.’ And who is so besotted as not to agree with him? Would you rid the world of their kind? ‘A life rich in dereliction, the life of beggars, drunkards, idiots, tramps, tinkers, cripples, a merry, cunning, ribald, unprotesting life of despair, mirth and waste’—God’s tolerance for these superfluous persons’ disgusts you. You would contract His spacious universe into a tidy garden of saints. Yet there are lovable scamps, of whom the world is full, who astonish us by doing magnificent things of which their virtuous neighbours are quite incapable, exhibiting a self-sacrifice or a cheerfulness in adversity, or in face of death, which saints might envy. So baffling are the aspects of life when a sudden illumination comes from the heart of darkness.
In his Laws that hot-gospeller, Plato, becomes very stern with his fellow creatures. In the state he pictures, a Fascist state, there is no liberty of opinion, no toleration of disbelief, or interference with the established order. And the penalty is death, as it was the penalty of heresy in the early Church. The wise folk who know what is best for the world are to be congratulated. To know that you are a prophet of the Lord is agreat thing—to have no doubts. It is a great thing to be so deep in His counsels that you can speak ex cathedra, and hand over delinquents and dissentients to the executioner.
The passion for reforming one’s neighbours out of existence, or at least out of the existence they prefer—and the two are often found together—afflicts even more grievously those who have lost their faith in God than those who believe in Him. The seceders to the church of the ethical idealists, having dispossessed God of His authority, are at no loss to replace Him. They mount the vacant throne, deify their own consciences, would have men bow and worship their ideals, and proceed to establish a tyranny more irksome than that of their ecclesiastical predecessors,
More haughty and severe in place
Than Gregory or Boniface.
‘Be my brother, or I will slay you.’ Sois mon frère ou je te tue. Who conferred upon them this astounding magistracy? What, one wonders, do our reformers propose to do with men in whom the opposites are in startling evidence, with a man, let us say, like Charles James Fox, who made his great speeches in the Commons on nights between those he spent in gambling and drinking? ‘The most brilliant debater’, said Burke, ‘the world ever saw’—‘all fire and simplicity and sweet temper’, in Creevey’s words, ‘perfectly exempt’, in Gibbon’s, ‘from any taint of malevolence or vanity or falsehood.’ This man spent a quarter of a million on cards and wine before he was twenty-five, and fiercely resented any interference with his personal habits. He would lose £16,000 on Tuesday night, speak in the House on Thursday on the Thirty-Nine Articles, sit up drinking the remainder of the day at White’s, and win £6000 before leaving for Newmarket on Friday. This was also the man who fought all his life for every liberal principle, for toleration and Catholic emancipation, and who during office abolished the slave trade. What do you propose to do with such a human volcano? Would you replace him by some bloodless respectability? Perhaps our reformers cherish the secret hope that nature has ceased to produce such men. Let us hope, they pray, that God or nature will refrain from making these upsetting people; another Napoleon, for example, the most splendid genius, Acton thought, who ever trod the earth, who yet had few scruples, sacrificed two million lives, had none the less legions of devoted followers, and built himself a pyramid of remembrance which will crumble only with human memory, who in his own words, wanted the empire of the world, and the world invited him to take it. The reformers will no doubt see to it that budding Napoleons may be early discovered and strangled in their cradles.
‘Never, no, never’, exclaimed Burke, ‘did nature say one thing and wisdom say another.’ I suggest that some hesitation would be to our intellectual credit before we condemned her outright, and set ourselves in opposition to her mighty scheme. Despite all that may be said and said truly of her divisions, her cruelty and inhumanity, or if you prefer it, indifference to our pains, I cannot reconcile myself to the lofty and unqualified disapproval, the offhand condemnation of the universe. I cannot take kindly to the open defiance of its ways. Mill spoke of ‘the odious scheme of nature’. ‘Let us understand’, cried Huxley in a moment of rhetorical exuberance, ‘that the ethical progress of society depends, not in imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.’ Ajax defies the lightning. Nature, then, is wrong and we right, she vicious and we virtuous. Our rationalists are very sure of themselves, our ethical idealists throw a bold challenge indeed to the divine mother that brought them to birth. Is the mannikin in his senses when he postures before high heaven?
I can find no warrant in the human intellect for a defamatory verdict on so vast, so immeasurable a thing as the sum of all existence. To take to ourselves a larger wisdom than the Cosmos has a whimsical, not to say insolent, look. By her own methods nature has brought us into being, raised us above the inorganic world, and conferred upon us a primacy in the organic. By her own methods she has elevated us to intellectual heights whence at least other heights can be discerned. Is this nothing? Are human skill, strength, dexterity, judgment, vision, genius, ‘the hero’s heart, the lover’s lute’ nothing? Is it nothing to have witnessed the astounding pageant, to have had a share in the shaping of events, to have known human friendships and associations? How tiresome are the fault-finders!
‘The sage’, said Confucius, ‘demands nothing from others. He does not murmur against God, or complain about mankind.’ Others with deeper knowledge and brighter minds may deem themselves qualified to judge nature’s case. I cannot. I prefer to think that our knowledge or our reason may be at fault. The choice, as Nietzsche saw so clearly, lies between a ‘yea-saying and a nay-saying’ to life. Men of sense will, I am persuaded, continue to accept rather than refuse. To spend life in denying life—what a programme! And nature will see to it that the ‘yea-sayers’ will prove the stronger party in the end. From them she will select her recruits, and commit to them the course of future events. That they will fall into line, however, at the bidding of our sentimental reformers, I should be slow to believe. Presently when the whole earth is explored, and mapped, and intersected with roads, there may be difficulty in meeting the needs of the active and adventurous, the Caesars and Napoleons, the fierce men and the fighting peoples. They will look around for action, for something to do, and will be troublesome. Will you set them to make daisy chains? Will tea and skittles satisfy them? These occupations may not suit their fancy. Our good friends, who would forbid gambling and alcohol, and much more, who would have all men at home and in bed by ten o’clock-at nights, are they aware that they propose to suppress the very springs of vitality, that if they drive the energies of nature underground, these energies will gather strength and blow them at the moon? They have not reckoned with the creative and destructive agencies of the nature they would put in irons. They are men sitting on a Vesuvius, whose blast will presently make cinders of their schemes. They are afraid of life, and have excellent reasons to be afraid. Looking over the world is like looking down into the fiery crater of a volcano. Nature is violent, and has not exhibited any marked preference for anaemic folk, for those who despised life, or turned their backs upon it.
The alternatives between which we have to decide are plain enough. The stage is ours. Here we are, thinking beings, evolved somehow through inconceivable periods of time. Either nature clean overshot her mark, adding to the creatures on this planet an unnecessary species, ill content with its lot, and sighing after impossible Utopias, or the appearance of such a being is an index to some deep withdrawn idea in nature herself, prophetic of issues not yet reached in him, or even in his furthest reaching thought, of which, as in all her previous doings, she has given no more than hints in the intellectual and spiritual strivings of mankind. So far men are the crown of nature’s efforts. Can she go further? Will she permit them to fall back into the void, and bring the sorry effort to an end? Should they, as some say, seek the void, or entrusting themselves to the vessel which, though storm-tossed, has yet escaped shipwreck, continue the voyage with good heart?
If I have not made matters clear, let me try again. That the world came to its present state from the hand of God or nature, as easily as your will moves your hand, that Not-Being passed smoothly into Being, is no certain truth. That it emerged from the womb of nothingness at a word, who can tell us this? What reason have we for thinking that it was an easy thing to call into existence a universe of conscious and interacting intelligences, to harmonise their desires, to attain perfection in such an enterprise in a moment of time? It may well be that to attain to man’s mind and soul a great circle was required, like the great circle sailed by mariners. So hard a thing it may have been to found the state of man.
Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem.
Life involves suffering, so far the pessimists are right. I am well aware that it may even be suffering past endurance. Many have judged death a blessing. There were in 1931 in Great Britain alone 5000 suicides; there are, it is said, 70,000 annually in Europe, double that number in the United States.
Here I and sorrows sit,
Here is my throne, bid kings come bow to it.
Nevertheless, Leibniz was also right when he described ours as ‘the best of all possible worlds’. What an absurdity, you say, when pain is the universal language of the race, the only language everywhere and at all times understood. But you have forgotten the opposites, upon which creation rests. ‘Evil’, as a writer on Plotinus has written, ‘is a necessity, if there is to be among the degrees of reality a world like ours, and our world, such as it is, is in so far a manifestation of goodness and beauty that its existence is preferable to its non-existence. For we have to remember that the question is not whether men and animals should be what they are, but whether they should be what they are, or not at all.’2
What is it, then, the fugitives from the ‘splendid misery’ of existence desire to avoid? It would appear themselves, not this life, but any life. They desire everlasting and unbroken felicity. But existence is built upon the opposites, which stand and fall together. The desire to escape them is ever present with us, but escape them we cannot. Expel the evil and with it vanishes also the good. The capacity for pleasure in conscious and sentient beings like ourselves rests upon the same foundation as our capacity for pain. If you can feel the one you can feel the other. In proportion as our natures are sensitive to joy they are sensitive to sorrow. As you can experience happiness, in like proportion you are exposed to the experience of suffering. Thus it is that men judge of existence as they themselves experience it, some approving, some disapproving, according as it provides a surplus of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, of pleasure or of pain.
Viewing life as a whole, Plato was of opinion that the existing universe was better than none. It is this, the world of the opposites, or nothing. Was he, perhaps, wrong? Were it within your powers, would you, since its ills are irremediable, destroy it with a word? Since existence is a unique experience, there is nothing with which we can compare it, no measure of its value open to us in terms of some other thing. We may think of it, and judge of it as we please. And the verdicts upon the value of life, as we might expect, are singularly varied. We are all ‘exiles from our dream’, but what in fact do men desire? I should be obliged if some one told me. Is it to sit with folded hands throughout eternity before the Beatific vision? Is it the life of Hume in Paris, where, he tells us, ‘he ate nothing but ambrosia, drank nothing but nectar, breathed nothing but incense, and trod on nothing but flowers’?
Heraclitus taught, as we have seen, that men were wrong who praised and sought the easy path, the putting off of burdens, escape from effort and anxiety, from hardships, even from war itself. They were wrong, since, though they knew it not, they asked for the end of the world. And to this foolishness they added a pusillanimous desire for idleness, for wages they had not earned, a cheque for everlasting enjoyment. Men cry out for a felicity they have done nothing to deserve, a felicity, moreover, under lock and key, safe for ever. But, whatever it may have been, it was manifestly not nature’s design to establish a pauper colony of idlers on her dole. She provided, in the phrase of Keats, ‘a vale of soul-making’. Variety, even violent variety, is the breath of being. Through the contraries, and in no other way, is thought encouraged, intelligence heightened, consciousness intensified. In their antagonism is our salvation. They are ‘the hounds of heaven’, hunting us, that we may develop all our powers. ‘He that wrestles with us’, said Burke, ‘strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.’ Satan, if we understand matters aright, is the ally rather than the enemy of Michael, and both God’s servants. Between them, between ‘His Darkness and His Brightness’, there is exchanged, despite their contrary rôles, ‘a mutual glance of great politeness.’ But for their partnership in contention nothing could ever take place. Without them were neither ups nor downs, neither projects nor endeavours, neither undertakings nor accomplishments. The fire and life and movement, the colour and music and mystery of the world are of their making. For to end all quarrels and conflicts would be to end all energies and splendours and graces, since it is in passion and action they display themselves, and not in either peace or indifference. ‘If I am very, very good in heaven,’ asked the little girl, ‘shall I sometimes be allowed to have a little devil up to tea?’ Her wisdom exceeded that of the philosophers.
‘Nothing great in the world’, as said Hegel, ‘is accomplished without passion.’ The intellect does nothing without interest, and the soul is the prime mover. This philosophy has the advantage over others that it reflects, and alone accurately reflects, the human situation. It begs no questions, and makes no complaints. It accords with universal experience. It accounts for the comedies as well as the tragedies. It does more, it maintains the necessity of things as they are, since the opposites are the twin pillars of existence. A perfect world, without any need of our assistance, where everything is to be had for the asking, who wants it? Who, even were it possible, could bear with it? Without successes or failures, without tears or laughter, without passions or interests? Action and endeavour are in the marrow of our bones. We cannot, indeed, be sure at any time, or in any cause, that we are right, our opponents wrong, or that the good for which we strive will be unmixed with evil. If you wait for such a certainty, you will sit in your armchair for ever. ‘If one were to do nothing except for a certainty, one would do nothing for religion, for it is not certain.’ It is Pascal who says so—Pascal! We are none of us wise, we are all of us on the way to wisdom. Stand then to your principles, whatever they are, take this side or that. Follow your star till you see a brighter. ‘Let us think no more about them,’ said Virgil to Dante, in the Divine Comedy, of the luke-warm neutrals, ‘but look once and pass on.’ Whatever else you are, says nature to us, be a man. ‘Enter these enchanted woods, you who dare.’ Let each man cast his spear, and leave the issue to the immortal gods.