O Lord, the children of my people are Thy peculiar treasures,
Make them mine, O God, even while I have them,
My lovely companions, like Eve in Eden!
So much my treasure that all other wealth is without them
But dross and poverty.
Do they not adorn and beautifie the World,
And gratify my Soul which hateth solitude?
Thou, Lord, hast made Thy servant a sociable creature, for which I praise Thy name,
A lover of company, a delighter in equals;
Replenish the inclinations which Thyself hath implanted,
And give me eyes
To see the beauty of that life and comfort
Wherewith Thou by their actions
Inspire the nations.
Their Markets, Tillage, Courts of Judicature,
Marriages, Feasts and Assemblies, Navys, Armies,
Priests and Sabbaths, Trade and Business, the voice of the Bridegroom, Musical Instruments, the light of Candles, and the grinding of Mills
Are comfortable, O Lord, let them not cease.
Among a good many other things, the universe has produced mind, mind in man. How it has come about no one knows, but—strange to relate—in this mind has arisen a critic, which has some insolent comments to make upon its creator, if a creator there be—a somewhat singular state of affairs. The dog barks at its master. Or you may say the child—a thankless child—rebukes its parent. The being to which it has given birth turns upon the world, and declares the whole design, of which it is itself a part, a bungled business.
Ah Love! Could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,
Would we not shatter it to bits, and then
Remould it nearer to the heart’s desire?
Whence did human thought derive its right to mount the seat of judgment, whence obtain its superior wisdom? With what other worlds are we acquainted, with which this of ours can be compared to its disadvantage? By human thought the universe has been judged, and by human thought condemned. Has this self-elected censor, our intelligence, this product of the whole, any private or privileged information wherewith to assess the value of the whole? Is any god speaking through the human mind when it rejects the world, and if so, what god other than its maker? The creator cannot well be supposed to reprobate his own creation, so it must be some other god.
Our position was, you remember, that existence and perfection were incompatible. They exclude each other. Existence and imperfection are twins, children of the same parents, the mighty opposites, the father and mother of things. Existence without contrasts, without inner differences and divisions, is a word without meaning, or rather such an existence is, we may say, indistinguishable from nothing. And we reached the conclusion, disappointing though it may be, that this was the best possible, since it was the only possible world. Unfortunately the best possible does not satisfy human nature. The world should be better, in fact perfect. Some philosophers go about saying that the Absolute, that is, the whole taken together, is perfect, and all within it, therefore, if we had eyes to see, also perfect. The theologians, too, assert that God, the world’s maker, is perfect. Who or what is then to blame? God, who made it, or man, who somehow destroyed its original perfection, or some unfortunate accident? Our position is that the imperfections are inherent in its necessary and unavoidable structure. The philosophers of the Absolute, on the other hand, declare that we are mistaken, that the imperfections have no real existence, they are mere human, shortsighted illusions; and the theologians, who, on the contrary, admit their reality, ascribe them to sinful man. However you account for them, the imperfections seem at least to exist, or why do we so rack our brains to put matters right? Occasionally even the ‘perfection’ philosophers are to be found, rather illogically, advocating changes, and most observers are agreed that something urgently needs to be done.
On all sides it is pretty generally allowed that the world falls woefully short of humanity’s requirements, more especially of its moral requirements. In some respects possibly it might pass muster. The view from a distance might, for example, with some trifling re-arrangements, even be approved. ‘Men must know’, remarks Bacon, ‘that in the theatre of human life it is reserved for gods and angels to be lookers on.’ To imagine ourselves angels, not to say gods, is a little difficult, but let us indulge the fancy that we are superior spectators of the world drama, in the stalls and not on the stage, casually interested in the performance, but otherwise unconcerned. What should we think of the play? We should, I conjecture, find it entertaining. We should praise the theatre as an imposing edifice, and declare the scenery excellent, the plot intriguing and full of incident, the characters numerous and charmingly varied, the acting wonderfully realistic and convincing. To disapprove of the world as a spectacle would, we may agree, be hypercritical. As a passing show it leaves little to be desired, and is probably as well worth seeing as any other staged in the universe. Anaxagoras and Nietzsche both thought this planet worth a flying visit. Conrad had a somewhat similar opinion. ‘I have come to suspect’, he wrote, ‘that the aim of creation cannot be ethical at all. I would fain believe its object is spectacular, a spectacle for awe, love, admiration, or hate, if you will, but in this view—and in this view alone—never for despair.’ But a spectacle for whom? This detached view of existence is for us fantastically remote. After all we are doers and sufferers, and much too deeply implicated in the events and circumstances to take them in a purely aesthetic or Pickwickian sense. To live in the world and to be, as we are, subject to all its accidents, is a somewhat different thing from looking at it through an opera-glass.
To know, then, where we stand is a matter of vital consequence. And, in the attempt to explain or account for things as we see them, we are like to lose our wits. For to the human intellect the world is a veritable delirium, a smoking whirlpool, where there is small standing room for logic, and for reason not an inch of foothold. In the presence of this boiling cataract, this turmoil of passions and events in their bewildering commotion, our mortal minds are aghast. And, worse still than incomprehensible, it is for gentler natures, and in particular for the divines and moralists, a hateful scene of vice and violence. Human thought, indeed, in its attempt to deal with such a scene, discovers in itself a conspicuous disability, an inherent weakness. When it meets with movement, change, with many separated things, it is utterly defeated. Unless they can be pigeon-holed, ticketed or classified, they cannot firmly be laid hold of, and are in consequence abhorrent. Rest and changelessness seem, to our way of thinking, the proper and natural state of affairs, of things as they should be. Being, as the philosophers call it, needs, we feel, less explanation, while multiplicity, motion, or Becoming, on the other hand, are in their essence abnormal and distressingly unintelligible. The human intellect appears to have two bugbears, and two heart’s idols. Its bugbears are change and many-ness, its heart’s idols permanence and unity. Like the bird by the snake, it is fascinated by identity, by sameness. The unchanging is for ever the object of its search throughout the whole scheme of things, precisely, indeed, what cannot be discovered there, and what is only to be found or imagined to exist in the primal immutable one, the whole of Being.
So it comes about that there is one matter upon which philosophers, theologians and moralists are in agreement. They stand shoulder to shoulder in their antipathy towards, or their recoil from, changing things, separated things, and in their demand for the stationary and the immutable. To understand the world, so the philosophers think, its flux, or flow, its dizzying movement must be arrested. If it were frozen into fixity, brought to a standstill, we might go some way towards understanding it. The moralists, for their part, demand that men should abandon their individual and selfish purposes; they must unite, come to think alike and agree together. The Many must be reduced to One. So also the theologians. The separation between God and His creation must somehow be broken down. God must be all in all. Whether we desire to understand the world with the philosophers, or to overcome it with the moralists, or to escape from it with the men of religion, the unity of the whole must in some way be attained.
Reflect a moment and you perceive that, without exception, they are asking for a vision the world does not provide, which it emphatically declines to provide, since it presents a very different vision,—disunion, separateness, multiplicity, incessant change—in short, a stupefying chaos. For throughout the universe everything appears to be at odds, in collision with some other thing; one energy is opposed by another energy, growth strives against decay, life battles with death. Men, too, are in antagonism with other men. Nowhere in this den of antipathies is to be found a semblance of the order, the permanence, the harmony or union of forces, hearts and ideals so deeply, we think, to be desired.
Man is hurled
From change to change unceasingly,
His soul’s wing never furled.
Apart from the business of keeping alive, and the purse with which to do it, ‘that money affair, that Bill-pestilence’, what a trial even at the best of times we are to each other! For my neighbours I may have a liking, and even school myself to tolerate their absurd and cantankerous prejudices. But how easily their tastes solidify into practices which interfere with my ways and habits, into restrictions on my most innocent undertakings. If my neighbour neglects his garden, weeds grow up, and the impartial winds scatter their seeds in mine. If his cocks crow or his dog barks, my slumbers are disturbed. If he adds a wing to his house my view suffers, and my property is reduced in value. If he throws out an additional window, he overlooks my summer-house, and pries upon my cherished privacy.
And all the while a perfect world exists. Where? you ask. Not only in the mind’s eye, but in fact, a world untroubled by the contraries, where discord, change, disunity are unknown. No serpent enters, no conflict disturbs that garden of repose. All quarrels are ended, all clamour stilled. Sin and pain alike are banished, and
No sound of human sorrow mounts to mar
The sacred everlasting calm.
It is the country of blessed union with the serene and immutable One. To enter it you have little to do—you have only to die.
No man can ever know perfect felicity
Till Otherness be swallowed up in Unity.
And some have said that all men, unconsciously it may be, nourish in their hearts a secret desire for nothingness, a desire to have done with the storm-swept world, in which they feel themselves strangers and aliens, and to be again at home in the only perfect country in the wide universe, the land of dreamless sleep. Matthew Arnold has a poem in which he contrasts the life of man with the better life of the sea and the stars, since
With joy the stars perform their shining,
And the sea its long moon-silvered roll;
For self-poised they live, nor pine with noting
All the fever of some differing soul.
The moon and stars are not, however, really happy, whatever the poet may say, and do not in fact shine brightly save for us; and save for us, or some other beings like us, might as well not be there. Nature, one is given to understand, has no private satisfaction of any kind in her everlasting and indefatigable toil. Why she ever undertook it, Heaven knows. No one seems pleased. And what has religion to say? It has been argued that religion, too, is nothing more than a concealed desire to escape from the mad confusion of life, the cruel injustices, the feverish strife, and that the thoughts of peace, eternity and God are merely a veiled longing for death, the consoling vision of the fugitives from existence, the familiar preference of the mystics for the perfection of eternity to the known imperfections of time—
In the divine perfections of the grave.
However this may be, here for the present we are, and though they will not long distress us, we dream and plan to improve our temporary surroundings. Those, indeed, who find life as it is, and the world as it is, pleasantly attractive, have no need of dreams. At rare moments, here and there in human history, in men and times of abounding vitality, so brightly shone the sun that the golden hour sufficed. Existence seemed beyond a doubt desirable, better than non-existence—as in the palmy days of Greece or England. In Shakespere’s English histories you breathe a summer air. The energy and full-bloodedness, the spring and buoyancy of their spirit ring in the very language of his characters. In Falstaff’s, for instance, a man full of zest, enjoying life and every moment of life, overflowing with exuberance, welcoming all company and every undertaking with huge delight. These are not tired or disillusioned souls, whose days are ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’, overwhelmed with ‘the heavy and the weary weight Of all this unintelligible world’. Their language is the language of sanguine men—read for evidence the speeches of Hotspur—who push their fortunes, love the world and its opportunities, rejoice in its adventures and hazards, are prepared to take risks, are never afraid, who meet danger halfway, and are happier in the prospect of combat than of rest and security. What vigour, briskness and vivacity they display; with what crisp conviction they converse and act.
Nerve never fails them. They have none of the wounded animal’s desire to seek the darkness of retreat. It was by such audacious, and not, we must allow, over-scrupulous men, that England’s greatness was built, with their trading, and privateering and warring—
Westward Ho! for Trinidad and Eastward Ho! for Spain,
And ‘Ship-ahoy’ a hundred times a day.
In those days England’s pulse, to use Emerson’s phrase, was ‘like a cannon’. Her sons were then neither humanitarians nor sentimentalists, but ‘human, all too human’. They took their advantages and thanked God for them, struck down their adversaries without hesitation, thanked God once more, loved themselves and their country, and made death proud to take them. ‘Sire,’ said Sir Walter Hungerford to Henry V, at Agincourt, ‘I would that we had here ten thousand more good archers, who would gladly be with us this day.’ ‘Thou speakest as a fool,’ cried Henry. ‘By the God of Heaven, on whose grace I lean, I would not have one more even if I could.’
But the world has known far other men and other moods. ‘Fools and foolery’, they cry, the disillusioned sages, ‘what devilry is here? What in the end were all these brutal triumphs worth?’ This barren activity, this insensate strife, this savage slaughter, they will have none of it. And if you are of the company of the heaven-born as against the earth-born, you will call these sages the illuminated souls, wiser far, spiritual natures, sweet, sensitive, profound. To them was vouchsafed a sight of better things than these gigantic follies, these insane ambitions, which make of life a ‘hideous storm of terror’. Go where you will, then, you find the opposites, the contending currents in the world without, as in the world of thought within.
This famous doctrine, the great refusal, the gospel of renunciation, fostered by the horror of life’s agitated sea, had its birth in the East, as had the mystery religions, which overran the Roman empire in the days of Augustus. Passivity is its keynote, withdrawal from the traffic in external things—‘the prison’, as, you remember, Epicurus called it, ‘of affairs and politics’—into the inner sanctuary of the self. In turbulent times when life is insecure, injustice rife, when tyranny and violence rule the mundane scene, there is for meek natures no refuge save in flight or submission. When the race is to the swift and the battle to the strong, the weaker must go to the wall. ‘You must kiss’, says the Oriental proverb, ‘the hand you cannot bite.’ In such times this gospel offers a peace within when there is none without. It invades dispirited or conquered races and civilisations past their prime, when the sap of youth no longer floods their veins, when desire fails and the grasshopper becomes a burden, when the glitter and the glamour fade, when the bustle of the assemblies and activities has lost its charm.
Lux ex Oriente. From the East it came, its spiritual home, this promise of an inward calm and felicity, rarer and far more precious than the world’s blood-stained rubies. And in Greece, Greece itself, where the tree of life had its golden season, its annus mirabilis, its unparalleled vintage year, where it burgeoned into leaf and flower and fruit as never before or since, in the soil even of Greece itself the dark cypress of negation took root. And there its name was Stoicism. The earliest Stoics, though Greeks, were men of Eastern birth or extraction; but in the Hellenic climate, as was most natural, a spiritual mood became a firm and reasoned creed, an up-standing, four-square philosophy of life. Over outward things, so runs the Stoic thought, we have, it is evident, no power at all, over the material elements or seasons, over chance or change, over decay and death. They are too strong for us, and there is no logic in their proceedings. Nature is irrational; the just suffer no less than the unjust, the young die as well as the old. Nature, too, is immoral, and has for goodness no more respect than the earthquake for its victims. But man, man is rational, and his mind is an independent kingdom, over which material things, over which nature herself, for all her brutal strength, has no sovereignty. From its impregnable fortress the free soul may look down upon, and defy, all her embattled powers. What matter her atrocities? What matter any miseries the wicked may inflict upon the good? Withdraw into the citadel of the self, and you can disdain these Satanic forces. Your contempt for them disarms them. You are their over-lord and master. Nay, more, you become a god. ‘My mind to me a kingdom is’, where I am the unchallengable ruler.
The virtuous man has thus supreme control over his own actions. Things beyond his power are no concern of his, and towards them he maintains an attitude of calm indifference. ‘Give me’, says Epictetus, ‘what you please, and I will turn it into a good. Bring me illness, poverty, suffering, condemnation to death—all this shall be turned to profit.’ If the condition of your own soul be sound, and if—here is the hard matter—you care not whether you are well or ill, in prison or on the rack, whether your friends and children suffer and die, your country perishes, whether you yourself live or die, if you can view all such things as unconcernedly as you observe the flight of a bird or the falling of a leaf, you may, indeed, claim divinity. ‘The spiritual man’, writes Santayana, ‘resigns existence as gladly as he accepts it, or even more gladly; because the emphasis which action and passion lend to the passing moment seem to him arbitrary and violent.’ So delicate and fastidious is his taste that a misplaced accent ruins his life.
Of all the world-rejecting creeds Stoicism has the proudest and the grandest air. It substitutes, it is true, ethics for theology. Whether there be gods or not, man is sufficient to himself, and has no need to call for heavenly aid. ‘You bear’, it proclaims, ‘a god about with you.’ And in this claim to self-sufficiency by a finite creature Christianity discerns, and cannot but discern, a blasphemy, a monstrous and diabolical pride. Yet the early Christians approved the Stoic emphasis on virtue and its contempt for earthly things, and from the pagan armoury drew weapons for their own. Stoicism, indeed, so permeated European thought as to leave its stamp upon all the subsequent philosophies and creeds. It meets and defies the world. The Stoics were no runaways; they were aristocrats and stood their ground. None the less theirs was in essence a world-denying creed, however high it holds its head above the others, the openly defeatist counsels and exhortations. What were the last words of Tolstoy as he lay upon his death-bed? ‘To escape, to escape’, he whispered. To escape from what? From the City of Destruction, from which Christian, you remember, fled, as Bunyan so vividly describes in his Pilgrim’s Progress: ‘So I saw in my Dream that the man began to run; now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return: but the man put his Fingers in his Ears, and ran on, crying, Life, Life, Eternal Life.’
Or was it death he was really seeking? Is ‘eternal life’ only a soothing name for the perfect life, in other words the life of the grave, or the celestial life of the stars?—A question of some moment, yet to be considered. Tolstoy, like Christian, was in search of a refuge. Like him he fled from the City of Destruction, even from his wife and family. So too the early Christians fled from the world’s Vanity Fair. It was in the very hey-day of the Roman empire that the submissive East conquered the aggressive West, conquered Rome itself, the centre, the capital of the world’s glory, where the lust of the eye and the pride of life had its stronghold, its proudest and mightiest keep. Here is how Arnold describes it:
The brooding East with awe beheld
Her impious younger world,
The Roman tempest swell’d and swell’d,
And on her head was hurl’d.
The East bow’d low before the blast
In patient, deep disdain;
She let the legions thunder past
And plunged in thought again.
. . . . . . .
‘Poor world,’ she cried, ‘so deep accurst,
That runn’st from pole to pole
To seek a dream to slake thy thirst,
Go seek it in thy soul!’
She heard it, the victorious West,
In crown and sword array’d!
She felt the void which mined her breast,
She shiver’d and obey’d.
She veil’d her eagles, snapp’d her sword,
And laid her sceptre down;
Her stately purple she abhorr’d,
And her imperial crown.
She broke her flutes, she stopp’d her sports,
Her artists could not please;
She tore her books, she shut her courts,
She fled her palaces;
Lust of the eye and pride of life,
She left it all behind,
And hurried, torn with inward strife,
The wilderness to find.
And one asks oneself, were these fugitives from life on the path of wisdom? Does the Power which produced them require of its creatures, during their brief years on earth, the sacrifice of all natural joys and affections upon the altar of negation? It is a stiff doctrine. Yet it has been accepted. And I suppose few of us can at times withhold our astonished admiration from the unflinching courage with which men have followed their guiding stars, whatever these stars may have been. At other times we ask whether religion and morals, like other guiding lights, have not also had their fanatics, their desperadoes, who will stop at nothing. I do not speak of the injuries men have inflicted upon others, but the fury they have let loose upon themselves. What wild, astounding dreams have they not harboured, what lunacies have they not devised? They have in times past exiled themselves from society in deserts and among mountains. They have, like Tolstoy, fled from their wives and families. Their self-inflicted penances and punishments, their fastings and flagellations pass belief, and are enough, in our softer times, to fright the devil. In their search for virtue they have imposed upon themselves vows of eternal silence, have starved themselves and denied themselves sleep, have gone naked and in chains. Some have thought it a sin to enjoy their daily bread, to use pillows, to shave their faces, to taste any kind of pleasure in music or poetry, to indulge in laughter or wear a cheerful countenance. They have associated filth with sanctity, and confused rude manners with goodness, despised learning and the arts, and made of life the hell they endeavoured to escape. Men have been terribly deceived by their religions, more terribly than by any philosophies; read for evidence the history of Hinduism and its greater horrors extending over centuries. ‘What a mystery’, as Sydney Smith said, ‘is the folly and stupidity of the good.’
Or were they, perhaps, in the right? One and all, these schemes of salvation declare war upon the will-to-live, as the supreme enemy of mankind. It must be resisted to the uttermost. Tread natural desires under your feet. Reject the body and its sensual appetites. Practise a sexless virtue. Fly from the follies and temptations of the world. The recipe is always the same, negation, ‘Nay-saying’, as Nietzsche called it—becoming, as it were, a ghost while yet alive.
What are we to make of this repugnance to life so conspicuous in Eastern religion and morals? Do not tell me it is extinct, and no longer anywhere to be found. I will give you an illustrious example from the present day. Describing himself, his own tastes and convictions, our famous contemporary, Professor Einstein, in painting, so to speak, his own portrait, paints to perfection the portrait of a hater of existence, a world-despiser. It is a drawing to the life, the very man himself. In the affairs and activities of his fellow creatures he takes no interest. ‘I have never’, he writes, ‘belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even to my immediate family with a whole heart.’ There you have it. He depicts himself as a man never at home in the world. Existence nauseates him. He looks, so he tells us, upon ‘individual existence as a sort of prison’ and ‘longs to escape from personal life’, echoing Plato’s old and famous phrase, τὸ μὲν σῶμα ἐστιν ἡμἴν σῆμα, ‘the body is the tomb of the soul.’ He disbelieves in human freedom and has no desire for any future life. ‘An individual who should survive his physical death is’, he says, ‘beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoisms of feeble souls.’ He ‘abhors the military system, the worst outcrop of the herd nature’, and war is for him ‘a mean, contemptible thing’. ‘Religious truth’, he tells us, ‘conveys to me nothing clear at all.’ He ‘cannot entertain for a moment the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events’. ‘I see the watch, but I cannot see the watchmaker.’ ‘There is’, he thinks, ‘nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair.’ Yet, observe, he has a sense of social justice, of social responsibility, and speaks of ‘the solidarity of human things’. And well he may. For when he looks round the world terror takes hold of him. Morals, you see, do not lose their importance with the departure of God. Far from it. On the contrary, they are invoked with the greater passion to occupy the vacant throne of the universe. When God has been deposed ethics is crowned in His stead. It is then the ethical idealists hasten feverishly to erect their humanitarian temples, and call upon their new god to save them. It is then the weak look anxiously round for some other helper against the world, ‘With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms.’ They cannot help themselves, and are in desperate plight.
How clearly the Orient speaks in this great man, in his Pantheism and Internationalism, in his yearning for tranquillity and social union, in his horror of multiplicity, his desire for the end of all separateness, for death and the calm of eternity. He is without hope in the world of the Many, his hopes are centred in the perfect One, the Absolute, the immutable Whole. Of course all this has nothing to do with logic. It is an emotional revolt against the conditions of existence. The compass points are reversed, South is North and North South. Here race and temperament speak, as they spoke with Spinoza, in their clearest accents, in the language of the world-renouncing East, which, in its extremity, made of its fears a religion, and of repugnance a system of morality. In its view, as in Professor Einstein’s, the curse of existence is disunity, and the oppositions it engenders are anguish to his soul. Disunity and existence, multiplicity and existence are, indeed, one and the same. The many minds of many men inevitably make of the world a seething caldron of dissension, of restless rivalries. And the revolt from the society of your fellows is nothing else than a revolt from life itself, from time and its perturbations, the only refuge from which is eternity. For such men the incessant frictions, the contending wills, the demands made upon them by others, even their cheerful animation, become obnoxious and insupportable. Devouring their souls and avoiding the ways of men they become hermits, go apart from the throng into the woods and hills, to find in solitude, in communion with nature and eternal things a foretaste of celestial calm, a relief, a felicity which the tumultuous arena, the treacherous and flying flux cannot give.
The praises of solitude have often been sung. There, even while an earth-dweller, you are told, you enter Nirvana, and its heavenly silence, as in the grave, where you will never more be disturbed. Dr. Johnson, indeed, thought solitude ‘dangerous to reason without being favourable to virtue’. That, however, is another question, and we must not suppose it is the saints only who have felt its seductive charm. ‘For more than a month’, says a recent writer, ‘I had been living with the desert and the sea in absolute freedom, and it was very disagreeable to have the spell broken by the presence of my fellow creatures… Alone in these solitudes I had felt myself in the midst of the vast universe, in which some mysterious instinct urged me to lose myself. Woe to the man who has once experienced the bliss of this divine communion with nature; every time he is compelled to return to the herd he will suffer from an awful solitude.’ Who is the speaker? You would suppose him a poet or a mystic. But these are the words of a Frenchman, De Monfried, a smuggler of hashish. Where the ‘extravert’, as he is sometimes called, finds his chief delight in society, in the cheerful stir and animation, in family relationships, in the sound of human voices, the convivial meetings, the hum, the bustle, the banter and debate, the introvert seeks his pleasure in retirement, in the loneliness where all discords die away, all babblings cease. While life lasts he is a sufferer, and craves for peace, peace, it may be, at any price, for which he will sacrifice anything and everything, if needs be even his honour, or what men call his honour, his freedom and his country. In this mood of the human soul, obligations and loyalties may wholly vanish and egoism win the day. The man who dies for a cause or country has made out his case, but what has that man to say for himself who has a care only for his own salvation? He has one resource. He can wholly and altogether deny the value of existence. The will-to-live may be accused, placed on trial, found guilty of all human misery and sentenced to death. ‘Dead is the world’s delight!’ And since in the justice of that sentence millions have acquiesced, since the worthlessness of life is a conclusion distilled not by a few disgruntled malcontents only, but from the experience of multitudes, you are brought to a halt, and may not pass it negligently by. Indeed you cannot, for upon this mood has been erected a formidable philosophy, the philosophy of Pessimism.
We have contended that this, though far from perfect world has certain claims on our respect. It was the only possible world. If, however, the pessimists be right, no world at all would have been better, or at least a universe, if such could be, without consciousness, a universe of insensate things. Arguments cannot determine this issue. Merchants of gloom and traders in despair will always find customers. ‘Tis easy to employ a paper currency, destitute of human value, as do the philosophers, whether of the East or West, who spurn time and reserve their commendations for eternity as the soul’s true haven. These dark-robed worshippers of oblivion but express in windy circumlocutions their abhorrence of the world, and their conviction that the spirit of evil presides in undisputed sovereignty over all sentient existence.
It turns, then, the issue, in the last resort, upon the individual bias, the personal equation. As in days of political upheaval men become Puritans or Cavaliers, so in religion and philosophy they are swept by natural and unfathomable sympathies, by birth or destiny, into opposing camps. No, arguments cannot settle this issue. Yet something may be said. It may be said that the charge of utter senselessness against the sum of things, against God or nature, demands a strong case and a stout advocate. To convict either God or nature of inferiority, whether in wisdom or in any other respect, to ourselves, the creatures of a day, who see no more than the fringe of things, will need, one cannot but think, some pleading. And, however good the case appears, invectives against living carry in the end little conviction. To be in order not to be is scarcely an alluring proposition. Nor does it seem probable that men will either be cajoled or intimidated into the wearing of a hair shirt all their life long. The world will remain worldly, if for no other reason than that the fugitives, the disbelievers in life—such is nature’s supernatural cunning—leave few descendants and their race perishes.
The adversaries of nature have never proved themselves her match. She made fish to swim and birds to fly, and did not build the human soul for retreat. It will fight on. Nature does not, however deficient in sense, stultify herself. She took pains to keep things going. To tell human beings that they are already at birth dead men, as if they had not enough to put up with, that they were ushered into being in order to turn and rend themselves, is a doctrine the majority are not likely to accept. It will seem to them what it is, a doctrine of the tongue and not of the heart, a playing of the fool for pastime. There is here some concealed madness. Life itself never fails to discomfit the philosophies of ideas, which fly before it ‘like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing’. And if you ask yourself of what type were the peoples who have made history, who have placed their stamp upon the events of time, there can be but one answer. They have not been the world-forsakers, who
Saw life a dream in Death’s eternal sleep.
To reduce life to a minimum, to be humble and submissive, to save your soul alive by solitary prayer and meditation—that counsel has been given by many good and talented men, of whom, perhaps, you may think the world was not worthy, whose lives and teaching form a part, and not the poorest part, of our human heritage. Yet remember when you listen to their message that the cause for which none will fight is a lost cause, the cause or country for which none will adventure their lives will go down before the cause or country men place above their lives. Such is the law of nature. Nothing has ever been accomplished by resignation, the willingness to put up with anything, to submit to anything. All that has been done has been achieved by the ‘no surrender’ principle. And if you hold empires, and states, civilisations, arts and sciences worth the building, it is well to recollect that more is needed, much more, than the saving of the individual soul by communion with eternal things. ‘In nations’, wrote a recent historian (F. S. Oliver), ‘meekness is not a virtue, but a contemptible and very dangerous vice.’ No doubt the men who gave little thought to eternity and did the work of time, who had ambition, who were aggressive, who loved the world, were often, too often, sadly mistaken, and let loose upon their fellows a flood of troubles; yet for some reason they have been held in honour above the dwellers in the deserts or the anchorites upon their pillars. Dum vivimus vivamus. While we live let us live. While we see about us the starry systems, the colours and shapes and varieties of so many living creatures, while this stupendous panorama is spread out before us, a vision, one would think, not merely for mortals but for the immortals to look upon, a sulky and sullen humour it surely is which cries out upon it all, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’
‘He who spits against Heaven’, say the Spaniards, ‘spits in his own face.’ The world, talk as you please, is God’s will or nature’s, to which the will-to-live in ourselves is the undying, the incorruptible witness. There is, as Shelley said, something within man ‘at enmity with nothingness and dissolution’. Why or whence comes this never-countermanded order to every living thing to fulfil its being, to remain in existence? I am not acquainted with any answer to this question, scientific or philosophical. Nor do I anticipate any. Certainly from the systems that view the world as an eternal stationary whole you need hope for no relief from your troubles. If it be not a Becoming, if nothing is in fact happening, or if the cage in which we are imprisoned is merely revolving in the self-same everlasting cycles, then they are right who have thrown down the gauntlet of defiance to the insane whirligig we call the Cosmos. But the will-to-live points beyond the present. We are not, indeed, in nature’s confidence, and may be likened to sleep-walkers, mysteriously upheld by some secret influence. In us some project is at work, some end foreshadowed.
You recall the δαίμων of Socrates, his mentor or angel, which possessed a wisdom beyond that of the philosopher himself, although he had been pronounced by the oracle of Delphi the wisest of men. His δαίμων knew more than Socrates. The human race, too, has its δαίμων, its mentor, better informed than its wisest representatives, the acutest philosophers. Like the guardian of Socrates, it knows what is yet to come. When I hear the voices counselling surrender I place myself on guard. I tell myself the will-to-live, which contemplates the world’s outcries and commotions with Olympian calm, is more to be trusted than the logic of the kings of thought, the champions of the academic schools, and demands more than a measure of respectful consideration.
This race of ours has emerged from the womb of the immeasurable universe, and no one has told us how. Man has emerged from dark unconsciousness, and is in some degree an independent being—how far we need not now discuss. He has become a person, a separate self within the whole. Can we at this stage reasonably conclude that his selfhood is to be deplored, and what he has already gained a worthless vanity? Have we sufficient evidence at this point of time to count the human adventure a nightmare only, an evil dream? Does wisdom now dictate that what has been already gained should be abandoned, and that we should sink thankfully back into union with the whole, from which we should never, save for some appalling blunder, some catastrophic folly, have emerged?
It is the will-to-live which has given birth to human love and human art, the soul’s ideals and its hope of immortality. Why turn away from the simple and evident truth? If then you despise and reject life, you necessarily despise and reject with it beauty, the affections and the society of your fellow creatures. To have friends and lovers, a share in time’s activities, to exchange and compare experiences and thoughts with your companions, to be a part of the great scene, to recall the histories, the adventures of the preceding generations, of the others who have made the journey before us—all this you declare a negligible nothing or an intolerable misery. You see only tragedy in the triumphs of the human spirit. Shrouded though it be in mystery, the will-to-live speaks out of the depths, and is less concerned with what is than with what is to be. It keeps good company. It consorts with the powers of nature, with her thrones and principalities, with thoughts that have not yet found their way into the clear light of human consciousness, with the cosmic principles that rule the spheres. Under its guidance the race has been wiser than its instructors, has declined to sit with them in ashes, and has continued to say to life, ‘Good morrow, you are welcome.’
In the opinion of Plato there were three sorts of philanthropy, that of a courteous, cheerful and hearty disposition, which put strangers at their ease; another which displayed itself in acts of kindness; and a third, which consisted in being good and pleasant companions, adding to the gaiety of social occasions. To which of these types do the despisers of life, daring neither to live nor to die, belong? Can they be said to belong to any? Of these types of valuable men the moralists, busy with their denunciations, have had too little to say. For my part I would fain capture the cavalier temper, with its touch of fine free carelessness, not going much in fear of either life or death, not much, indeed, in fear of anything, the temper of men battle-worthy and exalted above their present station. You must make your choice, you cannot be all men at once, or capture all varieties of perfection. Many varieties of men there have been, to any one of which, had our fates been in our power, we might gladly have belonged—poets, saints, heroes. We could ill spare any of them. There is one, I think, not greatly esteemed, of which our country has had many representatives. Let me call him the gallant blade. He thinks seldom and little about the learning, the problems or the prizes of the world. Light-hearted, unaffected, this Mer-cutio-like person is without aggravated solemnity or portentous gloom. He has his faults. His days and nights are not devoted to meditations upon virtue, to theories either of living or of art. He is destitute of metaphysical gifts. He has no talent for reforming his neighbours. Rather he rejoices in their society, and himself radiates good humour and cheerfulness, making this his contribution, and no negligible one, to the welfare of society. He carries with him a gusto for the present hour, which even moralists might envy and saints forbear to chide. And when adventure offers he tosses his sword in the air to catch it by the hilt. He is hope incarnate, a child of ‘the virgin, the ever-living, the lovely to-day’.
‘To impose one ideal upon all men’, as Professor Read said, ‘is an intolerable torture, that never has been, and ought not to be submitted to.’ We may be at ease in the matter. It never has been and never will be while the world lasts.
Sir James Frazer speaks somewhere of ‘the masked wizard of history’ who, by ways to us astonishing and unsearchable, has yet led, as it seems, the human race by the hand on the rocky path of its destiny, to the point at which it stands. Whether you look back or forward, the view combines, certainly, terror with sublimity. And for all we can tell, nature’s way may have been the only way, and hers no forthright path, but an undertaking of supreme, unimaginable difficulty. It may well be that to found the great commonwealth of living creatures required a long circuit, tedious essays, false starts and unprofitable explorations. All kinds of universe cannot exist together, and there must be some sufficient reason for the universe that is. If a world without the opposites there could not be, who can tell us that in such a world to make a home for the human race was a short and easy task? And who can be sure that refusal to play a part in it may not be a fatal decision, running counter to a great essay?
If history have any meaning, we are upon a voyage hardly yet begun. We do well, I submit, when we put our trust in ‘the masked wizard’ behind the scene—when we look back, we know not why, with instinctive fascination upon all the historical movements, refusing to sacrifice any one of them, the ethereal radiance of Greece, the majesty of Rome, all facets of the human spirit represented in the ancient cultures and civilisations, the accumulated wisdom, the capitalised experience of the generations that have gone before us. If they have made errors, they have amid their tribulations also worked wonders. I can find no better knowledge than in their affirmations.
The plain man, not too fastidious to live with his fellows, is the ideal spectator of the troubled scene. For his simple wisdom, his untutored soul, his shy, inexpressive intelligence, unper-plexed by dialectic, unsubdued by failure, I confess an affectionate regard. I embrace the philosophy of the vulgar. This plain man has been at his best ‘when walking towards the gods’, in the phrase of Pythagoras, when his loyalties were aroused, his affections engaged, his courage kindled. How comes it that he is at his zenith in adversity? How came the race into possession of hope, that mysterious sustainer of all effort, the most constant and enduring of our life’s companions, our friend of friends?
In these two instincts, the will-to-live emanating from the darkness whence we came, and hope, a shining light in advance of us, nature speaks from the depths of her heart. Here if anywhere you have her testament signed and sealed. So deep is the fountain whence they sprang that against all the evidence they even carry us in thought beyond the grave. Have the psychologists begun to account for them? If you can discover for them any naturalistic interpretation, the pessimists have it, and I yield the case. For if they lie to us it is the universe that lies, and to what end I cannot fathom. Unless, indeed, you suppose these two, the love of life and hope in life are a trickery of nature, whereby before she slay us she may the longer torment us.
While we live then let us continue to live. But what next? Is it to live for eternity, as some would have us do, or, as others, for time? I answer that for us there is no choice. There is no living for eternity, save in time, in its dreams and activities; nor can there be supported without the heroic heart, the resolution
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield,
the heart and resolution of the English admiral, who on the dawn of an engagement remarked, ‘I have taken the depth of the water, and when my vessel sinks my flag will still fly.’ And for those in doubt, in alarm, either for themselves or the ship of humanity, there are the words of St. Paul to the trembling gaoler—‘Do thyself no harm, for we are all here.’