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Part II

XI: The Will To Live

For giving me desire,

An eager thirst, a burning ardent fire,

A virgin infant flame,

A love with which into the world I came,

An inward hidden heavenly love,

Which in my soul doth work and move,

And ever ever me inflame

With restless longing, heavenly avarice,

That never could be satisfied,

That did incessantly a Paradise

Unknown suggest, and something undescried

Discern, and bear me to it; be

Thy Name for ever praised by me.


The first step in philosophy is not a step; the first step in philosophy is to open your eyes. Not until he has looked round him, and with more than a little astonishment, in the actual world, not until he has in some measure become ‘a spectator of all time and all existence’, has any man a standing in the realm of thought. The majority of us are rustics, whose daily perambulations round the village pump mark the limits of our travel. ‘The winds of the world’, in Walter Page’s phrase, ‘have not ventilated our brains.’ I do not except the learned doctors,

profoundly skilled in analytic,

Who can distinguish and divide

A hair ‘twixt south and south-west side—

who know, it may be, the language of the brain but not of the soul, who know what algebra is but not adversity, comfort, but not dismay, sobriety, but not savagery, what respectability is, but not fury, madness, despair, who are strangers to nature and the passions in the raw, in their wide, untamed expanses. There is another way of thinking than theirs, more fundamental than logic, and another language than it speaks, God’s thinking and God’s logic, the universal, invincible, terrible logic and language of facts.

Of this logic and language we have already endeavoured in some measure to remind ourselves, to recall the magnitude of the universe, which is our dwelling, the vast scale of its spatial and temporal dimensions, the violence and inconsistency of nature in her walks and ways, the singular character of human life, its vicissitudes, varieties, afflictions, its startling contrarieties and discordances, the contending currents, ‘the light and sound and darkness’ of the broad sea of circumstances to which we give the name of history. We stand now upon the verge of a still more perplexing region. To the question, ‘What does human experience tell us?’ is added another, ‘How came this strange experience to be ours?’ And again, ‘What is its purpose or meaning, if it have any?’ In brief, ‘What is to be made of it?’ Clearly, in putting such a question, we have more than enough on our hands, in a word—the impossible.

So far we have travelled, we may say, through occupied territory. All of us have lived, looked round us a little, seen a little, heard a little, known a little, but there lies now before us range upon range of peaks unscaled by any climber, a

wall of eagle-baffling mountain,

Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured.

For of what are we supposed to attempt an account? Of everything, of all existence. Not merely of our immediate surroundings, of human activities and undertakings, but of ourselves, and our powers, such as they are, of accounting for anything, of that unspeakable enigma, consciousness, of the faculty of knowing anything, feeling anything, of our interest in anything. We are to account for, or attempt to account for, will and desire, love and hate, for philosophy, art, music, poetry, science, religion, for stars and systems, good and evil, Newton’s Principia and Shake-spere’s plays.

To account for all these, since all are included in existence, is the philosopher’s programme, not lacking, we may agree, whatever else it lacks, in ambition. And so far with what results? The results, it may also be allowed, and as might be expected, are disappointingly sketchy. Among them a few bold drawings, by great masters of technique, from Plato’s sweeping hand, or Hegel’s, have attracted attention; the majority of efforts have been as water spilt upon the ground. And, indeed, no one can be so bereft of intelligence as to enter light-heartedly upon such an undertaking, to suppose it within the compass of any man to solve the overwhelming riddle of Being, or to fancy that the best of minds can do more than perceive the profundity of the abyss. The mind is certainly a part of reality, but the part is not the equal of the whole. There will remain throughout time and beyond time the final unaccountableness. That man can do so much as set about an enquiry into his own origins is sufficiently astonishing, and his chief claim to dignity. That he should succeed is a fantastic notion, never on this side of sanity to be entertained. Enough that he has had the audacious fancy to spread his wings for such a flight. ‘He who knows that he does not know’, says the proverb, ‘is never a fool.’ Reality is not to be caught in the meshes of our human concepts and categories. The net we fling contains no water when it returns to us, only a few drops cling to it. As Athanasius confessed that the more he pondered the central mystery of Deity, ‘the more he thought, the less he comprehended,’ so with all of us. For the understanding in which we put our trust appears to recede with the increase of knowledge. We journey and never arrive.

On the wall of a stanza in the Vatican may be seen one of Raphael’s masterpieces—The School of Athens, a famous picture with fifty-two figures. There are depicted Pythagoras and Diogenes, Empedocles and Archimedes. There you may see Ptolemy with his celestial globe, and Socrates conversing with his pupils. There in the centre are Aristotle pointing to Earth and Plato to Heaven. Let us suppose the sala inhabited by a colony of flies, to whom the picture is a familiar object. They have many times crossed and recrossed it. They perceive the irregularities of its surface. They may be aware of the varieties in the patches of colour, and possibly of the odour of the pigments employed by the artist. Knowledge of the picture they may be said to have, but how much? They have experience of some of its features, and scientific flies may have analysed, from a fly’s standpoint, its ingredients. Yet of why it is there, or why these colours take these particular patterns they know, and can know nothing. They see, indeed, all that is to be seen. There is no obstacle, no barrier between them and its wealth of artistry, of beauty and meaning. None the less some magic intervenes, so that of the scenes in the picture, the Greek history and Renaissance thought of which it speaks, of Plato’s philosophy and Raphael’s dream, they are and must remain for ever ignorant. For them all this is eternally remote though near, and impenetrable though unguarded. The fault is not in the picture, but in themselves; nor in a thousand, nor in ten thousand lives can they cross its invisible and inviolable threshold. Even for the human observer, unless he be already in its secrets, it has no voice, and analysis of its physical features avails nothing. The deeper the analysis goes the further it wanders from the true path of understanding, even from entrance through its open gate to the labyrinthine corridors of past and present time.

So with us and the universe. The obstacle to our comprehension of its nature and structure is nowhere else than in us; the disability is ours. The banquet is spread, and nothing is denied us that we can take for ourselves. All that we need is to overcome our own infirmity; and here at hand is our instrument, philosophy, neither greatly triumphant nor much in demand. The plain man, as we have already noted, eschews and disdains it. ‘A plague’, he cries, ‘upon these acrobatics, this eternal and inconclusive debate, where the disputants exercise their wits by refuting each other. Philosophy is but a child’s hobby-horse, on which men rock themselves to and fro without advancing. The best that can be said for these thinkers, who have had all the time there is for their researches, and continue to disagree so heartily, is that they have saved us much labour. They have at least explored for us a cul de sac.

If, then, philosophy has failed, what profit to pursue the phantom quest? It is written in the book of fate that we should do so. We question things that we may fulfil our destiny, satisfy the inward craving, pick up, as Newton said, a few pebbles on the shore of the great ocean, avoid absurdities, estimate probabilities, and the better provide for our necessities here and now, in our present state. The intellect is man’s burden, but not less his pride. With the emergence of mind in us living creatures rose up immediately the cosmic problems, those staring spectres, and the human soul is like the terrified magician, who had learnt the formula which conjured up the spirits from the vasty deep, but not the spells which quelled or bound them. Before the advent of the enquiring intelligence there was peace. No questions were asked by the early inhabitants of the earth, by the dreaming mosses or the plants, nor among the happy-go-lucky lower animals. Thinking it was that upon its arrival became entangled in a maze of its own construction. It discovered the perplexities of the world, and propounded the problems only to find that it must itself supply the answers. Thus it was that, as Shelley vividly expresses it, man

fled astray

With feeble steps o’er the world’s wilderness,

And his own thoughts, along that rugged way,

Pursued like raging hounds their father and their prey.

Perhaps—who knows?—we might have been happier, happy as children are happy, had the intellect never awakened in us to propound its troublesome questions. As it is, however, we have now no choice, and must turn to our religion or philosophy to answer them, to explain to us this our human situation.

And it is the life we know, and as we know it, earthly life, bodily life, life as universally experienced, that we must first look in the face; begin, that is, with our eating, drinking, talking, commonplace selves. How came this kind of existence about? If, for example, we are, as many have held, and as may be true, embodied souls, it remains to be understood why they are embodied. Presumably for some reason. Presumably if nature produced bodies they serve some end; something of importance, or some necessity is there represented. Certain mystics, like Plotinus, in their spiritual fervour, despised this material framework of ours. They waved it aside as an encumbrance. How they proposed to get along without it I cannot tell. For centuries, too, with many Christians the human body was under grave suspicion. They had little to say in praise of it. It has been beyond measure abused. One would suppose it a kind of monster, a sink of iniquity. How much better we should have been without an unruly member, like the tongue, for example. St. Francis, you may recall, in the kindliness of his heart, spoke of ‘Brother Body, the Ass’—for a medieval saint an extremely generous estimate. But its vices, if we are to believe the Fathers, are legion. It harbours fleshly lusts which war against the soul. Why then, in the name of all the gods at once, was it thrust upon us, and if either worthless or an enemy, by what unkind fate, what unfriendly agency are we so afflicted? It is a suspicious circumstance that bodily wishes, affections, hopes have so much more interest, so much more apparent naturalness than the so-called spiritual. Arguments’ ‘taken from real life and the actual condition of the world’, as Sydney Smith said, ‘brought among the shadowy discussions of ecclesiastics always occasion terror and dismay; it is like Aeneas stepping into Charon’s boat, which carried only ghosts and spirits.’

Any system of thought which sets forth by flouting facts, which leaves this flesh and blood, this earthly lot of ours—whether you disapprove or approve of it—unaccounted for, or condemns it out of hand, leads to a swamp of contradictions, and can have no future. Of all such systems time works the ruin. They ‘go down the wind, and darkness takes them home’. And for the simplest of reasons—they quarre with the fundamental nature of things. They assume that the world is not what it should be, and that human nature should be utterly different from what in fact it is. These are very violent assumptions. Certainly a higher and more widely distributed intelligence would have done no harm, but then to have been created angels at the beginning would have been better still, and saved many human misadventures. Things must be taken as they are and explained as they are, or not at all.

And we have seen reason to think that the world is what it is of necessity, if a world there was to be. It has a structure, to which, as to the structure of our bodies, we must willy-nilly submit. And to go no further, this material system of tubes and wires, of pipes and cisterns, leaves us in no doubt where we stand. How evident it is that we cannot do what we like with them, or go where we please! They impose upon us the sharpest limitations and restrictions. We cannot breathe under water or fly to the moon. They implant in us a number of ineradicable appetites and desires, which to resist may be painful or perilous, or altogether impossible. In a word, we cannot have it all our own way either with the world or with ourselves. They do not permit of anything or everything.

The stars and seas, for good or ill,

Have made me subject to their will.

We meet with resistances, life is a tension, and thus early among our experiences we make the acquaintance of disappointment. The world doubtless has a certain plasticity, we can work upon it and effect certain changes in it, yet there is a rigidity in its structure not of our making, and if existence in the world is to be accepted you must accept it with its necessary and accompanying conditions. To have a regard for what is possible is, therefore, the beginning of wisdom. If such be the case, then clearly a perfect and everlasting happiness in the world, even if desirable, is clean out of the question. Worship perfection by all means, but do not ask for it or expect it.

We conclude, then, at the outset that the conditions of our present lives simply do not permit of the unbroken felicity we crave, and can never permit of it—a matter strangely overlooked by theologians and Utopian dreamers alike, the theologians who talk of lost paradises, once enjoyed, now forfeited by disobedience to the commands of God, and the dreamers who build on foundations the earth does not provide—that is, castles in the air. It is their false premises which betray these good souls, their misconception of the nature of things and the human situation. They have misread the map, and are for ever lost in the mountains of No-man’s land.

So, too, if you speak of the body as an irrelevance, a tiresome burden, you are precipitated into a swamp of confusion. Anodour of sanctity attaches in our vocabulary to the word ‘spirit’. When, however, we speak of ‘things of the spirit’, of men as ‘spiritually minded’, or the reverse, it were well to ask ourselves what exactly do we mean. The word ‘spirit’ is in our language and thoughts set over against matter, and heavenly things opposed to terrestrial things. Yet this dichotomy is full of perils. On what grounds are terrestrial things so maligned? And how do we know them, or distinguish them from the superior things? If I have, let us say, a liking for poetry or painting, am I spiritually minded? Am I then on a higher moral plane than if my taste lies elsewhere, in travel, or mountaineering, or military history, or medicine, or machinery, or law? Is mathematics a more spiritual exercise than flute-playing, or does social study give me a better chance of heaven than athletics? Am I less spiritually minded if I prefer an out-of-doors life, and am interested in plants and animals, than if I have a fancy for church music or high ritual? Am I nearer God if I reflect on the mysteries of life and death than if I am immersed in civic and political activities? Is the ‘interior’ meditative man a higher type of being than the busy ‘exterior’ man, the man who lives more in solitude with his own thoughts than he who is active and about with his neighbours? Things are by no means as simple as we are told

We know nothing of any life save life in the body, and to denounce the senses is mere madness. We hear sometimes of holiness. Is it something other than unselfishness, sweetness of disposition, kindliness? Is it better than these, and with what acts is it associated that are not associated with an altruistic disposition? Does it consist in a capacity for awe and reverence, some kind of cosmic emotion, and if so how does it qualify for eternal happiness? Questions like these are worth asking ourselves. Our bodies, I fear, however great an encumbrance to the spiritual life, will remain with us to the end. How are we to get rid of them?

Let us assume as little as possible, and begin with things as we find them. How, then, do we find them? Well, as we have seen, not greatly to our minds. As a place of residence this planet is not highly recommended. Nor, in their turn, are its inhabitants described in enthusiastic terms by the divines and moralists. ‘What can you tell me about Winchester?’ said the traveller on the coach to its driver. ‘Debauched, sir,’ was the answer, ‘like all cathedral cities.’ If the saving of the soul should be our main concern in this world, one can see that it is a matter attended with the greatest difficulties.

Yet, whatever its drawbacks, in this undesirable neighbourhood, where you would least expect to find it, you meet with the will-to-live, a very noteworthy principle, not easily overlooked on your travels. The will-to-live is ubiquitous, universal, insistent. Nature advertises it, all existence manifests it, life in every creature gives it the clearest utterance, and well we know it in ourselves. There the hounds of this desire to be alive and remain alive are in full cry. So profound and pervasive is the instigation of this instinct, upon which all else appears to rest, that we might well conclude with Schopenhauer that it is more fundamental than thought or mind, and gave birth to the whole creation. For we cannot dig deeper to find a surer foundation. Speculate you may on the origin of things, but this imperative principle is not, like the Absolute of the philosophers, beyond mortal sight or imagining—

Pinnacled dim in the intense inane.

It is at every moment, and everywhere, in frank and open evidence. And moreover it is clean beyond logic, nor can reason offer any explanation, the most meagre, of this corner-stone of our being. For the intellect is the servant of the will-to-live. It holds aloft the lamp by which the will may the better see its way, perceive and make use of its opportunities. But one thing there is upon which it can shed no light, the will itself, which is beyond logic and understanding. Of its origin or nature the intellect can tell us nothing. And, however discouraged it may be by the pessimists, this inscrutable principle, this mysterious prompting to continue living, to remain in the world, is by common consent well-nigh invulnerable, and of all our instincts the most difficult to dislodge or subdue. Achilles in Homer, you may remember, had no hesitation in declaring his preference for any earthly lot, were it even that of the serf or drudge, to the shadowy existence of the underworld, the abode of the dead in Hades. Observe this also. The will-to-live cannot be ascribed to a source in the surroundings of our present home, which are far from salubrious or attractive. The world is no cornucopia of undiluted delights, no Elysium, in which you have only to ask and it is given you. On the contrary, the will-to-live meets here—what need to repeat the story?—with all kinds of discouragement, with frustrations, oppositions, vexations beyond number. They are rife, they have not to be diligently sought for, as Diogenes is said to have sought for an honest man in broad daylight with a lantern. Yet somehow, and here is the riddle, the most convinced pessimists are in no haste to die. Like the philosophers who disbelieve in reason yet continue to employ it, the pessimists, having proved life intolerable, continue to tolerate it. The will-to-live holds its own manfully even against the well-to-do professors of misery. Your easy chair is your great breeder of melancholia, yet luxury itself cannot prevail against this inward imperative, this clinging to life, whatever its conditions.

No churchyard is so handsome anywhere

As will straight move one to be buried there.

Some other ground must therefore be sought for the will-to-live than the satisfactions existence offers or provides. You must look for its genesis, its roots, elsewhere than in the world of experience, which thwarts, denies, and gives the lie to this illogical passion, that in academic theory has not a leg to stand on. If you enquire whence is derived this resolution at all costs to remain in life, you will get no answer. Physics knows nothing of the matter. Biology, physiology, psychology alike are silent. The will-to-live submits to science no title-deeds for examination. It offers neither justification nor defence. It is an autocrat, and the intellect and passions bow before it. This imperial instinct derives, then, from the invisible and unknown; it is, that is to say, in its nature and essence throughout metaphysical, and possibly for that reason worthy of respect. Reflect a little, and you perceive that whatever its source, the desire for life accompanies each creature on its entry upon the visible scene, and no account of its previous history can be rendered, or of the fountain whence it sprang. There are, as Pascal said, certain principles, of which our knowledge is as certain as any given by reason. We find them, as it were, in our cradles. No reasoning can make them more sure or more intelligible than they already are from the first. Without assuming these principles—for example, space, time, matter, motion—without taking them for granted, reason is unable to take a single step. Upon them logic erects its propositions, and from the starting-point they provide proceeds upon its way. So also with the will-to-live. In every living thing we observe a turning towards the expansion or fulfilment of its being, together with a corresponding aversion from the denial or frustration of that being in any form or degree. Good is for all living creatures alike and without distinction whatever enriches, evil whatever impairs or diminishes their contentment and repose. And never till the birth of man, never throughout the whole creation, did any doubts of life’s value raise their heads. The will-to-live has no doubts. It is fundamental, instinctive, unthinking. No animal questions it. For all living creatures save ourselves life is sufficient, and, as Aristotle thought, though no good should go with it, itself a good. Here then is a mystery deeper than most—the quarrel of life with the conditions of life, the revolt of mankind. The intellect arrives, and with its arrival, strange to tell, contentment fades. It brings tempest on its wings.

If the source or origin of the will-to-live is hidden from us, at least we know its habitat. It is, as far as we can see, invariably lodged in separate, individual organisms. They are its embodiments. And hence arises the famous or infamous struggle for existence. The will to existence leads directly and inevitably to strife. For the unreflecting individual entity, of which the will is the mainspring, sacrifices, thoughtlessly and without compunction, all other existences to its own ends. They form its environment, and are subjected to its private purposes. To sustain their needs the plants make use of the material elements, and in their turn are consumed by the animals, and they by others stronger than they, including man, the master of them all. And so it goes till the level of the conscious intelligence is reached in the human race, in homo sapiens. With the dawn of the intelligence, and not till then, arose the dark suspicions of the worth of life, and the formidable problems of religion and ethics took their present shape. With these problems our fellow-creatures, the lower animals, are placidly unconcerned. A lowering day it was, an ugly day it must have been, when the first man stood face to face with the idea of the worthlessness and absurdity of life, when it dawned upon him that the grapes were sour. On that day a chasm opened at his feet—the chasm of the unintelligible. Or not so much the unintelligible, which might after all be borne when the sun was warm, the air pleasant and food abundant. Not so much the unintelligible as the irrational, a deep uneasiness that the gods or nature had played him false, that the cup of life but sparkled at the brim, the discovery that his wishes were forever to be met by hostile looks from nature, by angry opposition from his neighbours, by projects incompatible with his own. How deep and natural is the instinct that all our desires should be at once fulfilled! Even the child in its cradle weeps at the oppositions offered to its every wish.

So, early in human history the will-to-live was challenged, and there followed ‘all the cursed, everlasting questions’, as Dostoievsky called them. How to justify, men began to ask, their own seizure of the best, or how the conflicting purposes, their own with all the others, were to be harmonised, strife evaded, hatreds avoided, wars ended, unbroken happiness attained. They have not been answered, they are with us still, the exasperating questions. How in the face of this universal conflict is the individual to secure his own ends, how exist, expand, realise his innermost, his profoundest needs, without interference with lives and purposes no less justifiable than his own, without injury to them, without the destruction or subjugation of the rest, the vast concourse of other living creatures? Each and all, you and I, have their moral rights to what existence offers. Every man has his case and his claims as undeniable as those of his neighbours. They have not been answered, these questions, not one of them. They have gathered in strength with the passage of time and history. ‘Gathered in strength’ did I say? To-day with us as a people, peculiarly susceptible in this respect, they force themselves upon our attention as never before, cling to it with unrelaxing tenacity, and the great debate, whose issue no man can foretell, nears its forthcoming and fateful height. To them is due the gloom, even desperation, of our time, and no one can foretell—for who knows?—whether we shall not, in our turn, go the way of the East, pray for deliverance from the wheel of existence, and turn our backs upon the ambitions and pursuits of the contending nations, whether our Christian religion will not melt imperceptibly into a world-despising creed, and declare power, wealth, influence and empire the merest breath-blown bubbles, with which childish toys the wise man and the good man will have nothing to do. This once proud people, grown conscience-stricken, may choose to relinquish its privileges and liberty, resigning to others the control of its affairs and destiny. Strange things have happened in the past, and strange things are still to come. It goes back, as we count time, a long way, the revolt against living at all in so preposterous and hostile a world. The Greeks had a story of a Phrygian king who sought for long to capture the satyr Silenus, wise, it was said, with supernatural knowledge. At length in the king’s gardens in Macedonia, where grew the most fragrant roses in all the world, the satyr was taken, and brought before the monarch, who put to him the question of questions—‘What is best and most desirable for men?’ For long Silenus was silent. At last, to obtain his release, with bitter laughter he replied—‘Oh wretched race of a day, children of chance and misery, why do ye compel me to say to you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best for all is for ever beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. The second best for you, however, is soon to die.’ Optimum non nasci, aut cito mori.

If I were asked, ‘What in your opinion is the most marked change which has come about in this country during your own lifetime?’ I should answer, ‘Beyond doubt the rapid growth and extension of humanitarianism.’ As religion has declined, the gospel of humanitarianism has pari passu gained in strength and support. It is our new religion. And the change is the more surprising since science, which dominates modern thought, as religion previously dominated it, provides no platform for the doctrine of sympathy with the weak and help for the incompetent. Pity is nevertheless the note of our times, the virtue of virtues which has gone near to swallowing all the rest. Strange, is it not? for the Stoics and many other philosophers thought it a vice. This spread of tender-heartedness has led to all the social services, the innumerable charitable organisations, societies for the prevention of cruelty to children and to animals, societies for the abolition of violence, of capital punishment, for the preservation of peace and the outlawry of war. We have come to dislike sports which involve the hunting of hares, foxes or deer. So great is our sensitiveness that the mouse or rabbit in a trap makes us miserable, and the sight of a butcher’s shop nauseates us. The habits of the cat in pursuit of birds, the ferret sucking the blood of its prey, the serpent fascinating it, the spider or the plant which ensnares its living victims we view with shuddering aversion. We would convert these fierce creatures to vegetarian habits. So far has this sympathy carried us that it extends to assassins and murderers under sentence of death, whose approaching end afflicts us more than the deaths of their forgotten victims. Above all life must on no account be taken or sacrificed. If we exalt the sacredness of life into a religious principle, as many have done, where are we to end save in Buddhism, which not only refuses a diet of animal flesh, or to brush away an insect, but in its stricter sect commands you to wear a veil over your mouth lest you unwittingly swallow a fly? Does this teaching enjoin us to relinquish the world and leave the insects in possession? There are over a hundred thousand varieties in Africa alone.

Contraries—such, you remember, has been our contention—are implicit, as Heraclitus held, in the world’s structure, and without them world there would be none. They are ultimate and irreducible. In their tension is its life. ‘Excesses, defects and contrary qualities’, as Bishop Berkeley said, ‘conspire to the beauty and harmony of the world.’ The contraries are the dancers, whose advancing and retreating steps, whose turns and counter-turns create the vital rhythms, and to them is due not life simply, but life in all the exuberant, the magnificent variety of its patterns. They produce and preserve its savours, they provide its never-ending multiplicity of interests. The loves and hates, the order and disorder, the wisdom and the folly, all deeds, events, circumstances are of their making. And among them are the irreconcilable ideals of men. Men see things from their own angles in time and place, in conformity with their circumstances and their own individualities. How else could they see them? Everyone sees through his own and not another’s eyes; and if all came to see alike, the scroll of history would be rolled up for ever. Everything that has been said, or can be said of the world by those who have lived, arises out of their souls’ experiences, the lonely vision of each. They differ, these visions, as night from day, as light from darkness; the vision of those who hate and those who love existence; of those who in horror of its interminable warfare take the path of resignation and retreat, and of those who in their joy of living choose the path of acceptance. Between these, its extreme poles, swings the thought of humanity throughout the centuries, it may be unexpressed or half unconscious. It is the same world, the same landscape, which amazes, horrifies or delights its inhabitants, so varied its aspects, so multiform their reactions, so dissimilar their hearts and minds. Religion fears the world, its indestructible and powerful attractions, and urges the higher claims of the eternal values. But time, too, has its competing claims, not easily rejected by the lovers of life. And behind and above the storm and confusion, above the hurryings to and fro, the advances and retreats, the alarms and despairs, the preachings and protestations and proclamations sits, enthroned in silence, the inscrutable and mysterious will-to-live.

What room for cheerfulness is here? What hope of any exit from our troubles? If you fail to find an exit it will not be for want of guides. There is the programme of the naturalists, which commends itself to many, perhaps to most minds. Why should we try to escape, or transcend life as we find it? It is there to be flavoured and enjoyed. Be content with what you have, the colour and fragrance of the rose, the bouquet of the wine, the conversation of your friends, the lively gossip, the ebb and flow of events. Why regard this life as insufficient, as the ante-chamber to another, or a forerunner of some Utopia? Why spend yourself in labour for successors who will render you no thanks, or strive after a heaven of which you have no information? Take things as they are, without forward or side-long glances at some other and imagined state.

Or if this does not please you, there is the guidance offered by other thinkers. You may elect to tread, with more fastidious spirits, the mountain path. There is, for example, the thesis recently and eloquently argued by Dr. Schweitzer. As the will-to-live in ourselves advances to a higher insight it turns away from the hideous and intolerable conflict. It perceives that far from its iniquities and cruelties an inner independence may be attained, a happiness secured without the aid of external circumstances. The soul rises above them, as with the Stoics, to a higher height. ‘He who in the present state’, says an ancient writer, ‘vanquishes as much as possible a corporeal life, through the cathartic virtues, passes in reality into the Fortunate Isles of the soul.’ Follow this counsel, resign the glittering goods of the outer and passing world, and the resignation brings peace.

The solution here offered of the teasing riddle by the denial and abandonment of earthly things and their futile values is not, indeed, new—it is the well-worn path of the ascetics. It is the gospel which long ago, like a mounting tidal wave, swept the East, and submerged its vital activities. In one or other of its many forms, mystical or ethical, the refusal or denial of the will-to-live has in the human story played no small part. In the days of Laotze, the Chinese philosopher, 500 years before Christ, the sensitive hearts, the peace-lovers fled away from the violence of the times into the hills and deserts, as in the European Middle Ages they took refuge in monastic seclusion. At one time in Europe there were no less than 37,000 religious houses of the Benedictine order alone, not to speak of many thousands belonging to other brotherhoods. It has a siren voice, this summons to fold our tents, and slip away from the world’s coarse prize-fights, the senseless clatter of its merry-go-rounds. Yet how difficult it is to distinguish its accents from those of terror and despair. The intellect—the proud instrument evolved by the will-to-live for its own ends, the furtherance and fulfilment of our desires—appears now to turn traitor, to desert to the enemy, and declare the struggle vain. It proclaims the virtue of retreat. The advice has the ugly look of a betrayal, of defeatism. Like Enobarbus in Shakespere’s play, when he forsakes Anthony to join his foes, the mind might well, one feels, be seized with remorse, and cry out upon itself as

A master-leaver and a fugitive.

Nor can we believe that this proposal will prove universally acceptable. Distrust of life, aversion from life, fear of life—a sparkling trio of friends these to accompany one upon any expedition. ‘I’m not prepared’, says a character in one of Mr. Somerset Maugham’s novels, ‘to be made a fool of. If life won’t fulfil the demands I make on it, then I have no more use for it. It’s a dull and stupid play, and it’s only waste of time to sit it out. I want life to be fair. I want life to be brave and honest. I want men to be decent and things to come right in the end. That’s not asking too much, is it? … Resignation? That’s the refuge of the beaten. Keep your resignation. I don’t want it. I’m not willing to accept evil and injustice and ugliness. I’m not willing to stand by while the good are punished and the wicked go scot free. If life means that virtue is trampled on, and honesty is mocked, and beauty is fouled, then to hell with life.’1

One can sympathise with this malcontent. He wants things to come right in the end. Well, so do we all. He is not willing to stand aloof with his hands in his pockets while injustice is done and beauty fouled. Well, who will blame him? He is not willing to let the world go by, and as a conscientious objector, secure his own salvation and survey in serenity from his lofty moral elevation the shipwreck of the world. Certainly this proposal of resignation asks a good deal’ from the brave and generous and ardent souls, whose blood boils at the sight of wrongs. Will you tell them not to draw their swords for the innocent and afflicted? Will they be content to raise their hands to heaven in pious horror and do nothing, in full view of the outrages and the inhumanities? How numerous are the world’s voices, how varied the instruments, how divergent their tones. In one quarter of the compass you hear the note of passivity and surrender, in another of indignation and revolt; in one age of delighted interest and activity, in another of distaste and withdrawal; in one race of ambition and expansion, in another of quietism and mystic meditation. There were no conscientious objectors among the Spartans, no sentimentalists among the Red Indians, no saints among the vikings. One hears of no pacifists among the Japanese, no hermits in Greenland, no world-despisers in Mexico or the Argentine. Who will number the responses to their environment that human beings have displayed? Life, which has summoned many men to heroic endeavour, has driven many also to despair and self-destruction, and made others again half mad for the love of God. The angel who appeared to Saint Teresa thrust through her heart with a spear of gold tipped with flame, not once but many times, and left her all on fire with the love of God; and so exceedingly sweet it was, despite the terrible pain she would not have foregone it. Is it possible, you ask yourself, that Saint Teresa or John of the Cross lived in the same world as our own poet?

We for a certainty are not the first

Have sat in taverns, while the tempest hurled

Their hopeful plans to emptiness, and cursed

Whatever brute and blackguard made the world.

It is in truth iniquity on high

To cheat our sentenced souls of aught they crave,

And mar the merriment as you and I

Fare on our long fool’s errand to the grave.

Or again when you read the words of George Fox—‘When I came near to Lichfield I saw three steeples, and they struck at my life:’ there is a man of religion, you say. Yes, and here are the words of another man of religion, the founder of a faith which numbers over two hundred millions in the world to-day—Mohammed: ‘Three things have been specially dear to me in this world. I have loved women and pleasant odours, but the chief solace of my heart has been prayer.’

Or compare medieval Europe, Christian Europe, with China, whose civilisation maintained itself for centuries on Confucianism—till recent days the philosophy, the religion and the ethical system of three hundred millions of human beings. What was this powerful teaching? Secularism. The creed of good manners, of gentlemanly behaviour. It had nothing to say of God, of a supernatural world, or a future existence. Or contrast the middle centuries, that unique period in our European annals, with the centuries following upon the Renaissance. How different their respective views of the world, how opposed their systems of belief! Yet in each the doctrines universally held are felt as inevitable, as unassailable. Each age thinks itself in possession of the true and only view possible for sensible men. Among individuals you find similar and violent contrasts, determined by their temperaments. How many prophets and moralists have seen human life as a nest of vipers, and on the other hand how many have seen it as an enormous jest, like Aristophanes, whose thunderous laughter still reverberates round our intellectual horizon, or like Rabelais, holding both his sides in his colossal mirth. To suppose it possible to reduce to unity the innumerable responses and reactions of human nature to existence is an opium-eater’s dream. Yet is it all so dreadful if, as we have concluded to be beyond doubt the case, these very contradictions and collisions have given us a world to live in, if to them we owe our very existence?

‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’—and one of considerable importance. It will be part of our business to consider the answers that have been given to it. Meanwhile we may perhaps agree that life has for most men at least its moments, that if absolute perfection be unattainable, there are persons and actions that approach it, graces and beauties worth the seeing, and days on which it was a happiness to be alive. Yet it is not upon these bright points of light the argument hinges. Nor yet upon the truth that the contraries constitute the web and woof of things. It turns in the end upon your decision whether the command of the will-to-live be the command of a god or devil.

Yet, that for the moment aside, we might ask ourselves whether, despite their forbidding faces, the contraries, the mighty opposites, have not, since they keep us alive, something to say for themselves. What were Hercules without the lion, or St. George without the dragon? Where philosophers without their problems, or saints in the absence of sinners? To our preposterous race obstacles are the breath of life. It turns wearily and dejectedly away from the easy and obvious, and delights in its exertions and its pains. If you would make human beings happy, give them a task and a cause, and the harder the better. They rise to their full stature only when challenged. Startle the soul into admiration, ask of it the impossible, to join the forlorn hope, and it is endowed with angelic strength. Ask nothing of it, and the soul retires. Enters in its place the captious, querulous, resisting, arguing, quarrelsome intellect.

It is when the gods call them that men rise to the crest of their powers. Then they become themselves gods and hasten to join the Olympian society. Their greatness lies in their dreams, and in a heaven of idleness they would suffer the torments of hell. ‘Tis beyond the wit of angels or archangels, not to say philosophers, to comprehend us, the most mysterious and perplexing of creatures, who look round us for dangerous undertakings and invent miseries for our delectation. When Everest and Kinchinjunga have been climbed, men will look back regretfully upon the past happy days of bitter cold and aching limbs, of vile discomfort and appalling danger. They will weep like Alexander because there are no more worlds to conquer, and will presently project journeys to the Moon or Mars, devising undertakings with which joyfully to connive at their own destruction. They will never cease to attempt the impossible and assault the impregnable. The negations, lows, regulations, suppressions are without avail; there is in them no inspiration, they have no summoning power. Deny human beings their liberty and they are in continual revolt. Awaken their souls, and you can do with them what you please. They walk erect and become heroes and demi-gods. To all appearance we are actors in a moving scene, where nothing is at stay. Why should we be reluctant to allow it, and to say that life is ‘a becoming’? If we could permit ourselves to think that we have neither come from nothing nor return to nothing, that time has wide margins, that the gods have other thoughts than ours and their eyes are fixed upon a far distant goal; if we could postpone our condemnation of nature and of man, of nature which explores in every species the possibilities of existence for the greatest variety of living things, and of man a being hardly yet awake—if we think these thongs, oughts, and I can find no reason for supposing them unwarrantable, we might keep our souls alive, and need not end in blank despair.

Three things at least have not been proved, and may be regarded as exceedingly improbable. The first that nature has exhausted herself in producing what she has produced, that she has come to the end of her tether, and that nothing more need be expected of her. The second that all existence, all modes of being, lie open to the inspection of our physical senses, that their vision exhausts nature’s whole domain. The third that the human mind has reached the zenith of its powers, that its capacities have all been fathomed, and no surprises need be looked for in its future history. For myself I disbelieve all these. Who has determined the limits of the mind or set bounds to its journeying? Who has proved it a finished article, as Kant and others have in effect assumed? ‘To conceive a mind as initially perfect, or to conceive it as becoming finally perfect,’ as Gentile said, ‘is to conceive it as no longer a mind.’ It may well in virtue of its own nature have an infinite capacity for expansion. The justification of life consists not in the increasing felicity we fondly fancy it should here and now provide, but in the infinity of its possibilities, the endless variety and succession of its individual figures, the happiness it offers despite its pains, and in the inextinguishable hope, as invincible as its sadness, which, like the light of heaven, bathes the whole creation throughout its vast circumference in a mysterious radiance.

  • 1. The Narrow Corner, pp. 272–274.
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