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- The Philosophy of Despair - 2/4 -
questions, the answers to which lie within the province of human experience. Among these are the following:
Why is there a "Philosophy of Despair?"
Can Despair be wrought into healthful life?
In what part of the Universe are you and what are you doing?
Personal despair or discouragement may rise from failure of strength or failure of plans. This is a matter of every-day occurrence. The "best laid schemes o' mice and men " generally go wrong, no doubt, but this fact has little to do with the Philosophy of Pessimism. It is natural for mice and men to try again and to gain wisdom from failures. By the embers of loss we count our gains."
The Pessimism of Youth we may first consider: In the transition from childhood to manhood great changes take place in the nervous system. There is for a time a period of confusion, in which the nerve cells are acquiring new powers and new relations. This is followed by a time of joy and exuberance, a sense of a new life in a new world, a feeling of new power and adequacy, the thought that life is richer and better worth living than the child could have supposed.
To this in turn comes a feeling of reaction. The joys of life have been a thousand times felt before they come to us. We are but following part of a cut-and-dried program, "performing actions and reciting speeches made up for us centuries before we were born." The new power of manhood and womanhood which seemed so wonderful find their close limitations. As our own part in the Universe seems to shrink as we take our place in it, so does the Universe itself seem to grow small, hard and unsympathetic. Very few young men or young women of strength and feeling fail to pass through a period of Pessimism. With some it is merely an affectation caught from the cheap literature of decadence. It then may find expression in imitation, as a few years ago the sad-hearted youth turned down his collar in sympathy with the "conspicuous loneliness" that took the starch out of the collar of Byron. "The youth," says Zangwill, says bitter things about Life which Life would have winced to hear had it been alive." With others Pessimism has deeper roots and finds its expression in the poetry or philosophy of real despair.
This adolescent Pessimism cannot be wrought into action. The mood disappears when real action is demanded. The Pessimism of youth vanishes with the coming of life. Through the rush of the new century, the fad of the drooping spirit has already given way to the fad of the strenuous life. Equally unreasoning it may be, but far more wholesome.
But if action is impossible, the mood remains. And here arises the despair of the highly educated. The purpose of knowledge is action. But to refuse action is to secure time for the acquisition of more knowledge. It is written in the very structure of the brain that each impression of the senses must bring with it the impulse to act. To resist this impulse is in turn to destroy it and to substitute a dull soul-ache in its place. "Much study is a weariness of the flesh, and the experience of all the ages brings only despair if it cannot be wrought into life. This lack of balance between knowledge and achievement is the main element in a form of ineffectiveness which with various others has been uncritically called Degeneration. As the common pleasures which arise from active life become impossible or distasteful, the desire for more intense and novel joys comes in, and with the goading of the thirst for these comes ever deeper discouragement.
At the best, the tendency of large knowledge, not vitalized by practical experience, is to spend itself in cynical criticism, in futile efforts to tear down without feeling the higher obligation to build up. For it is the essence of this form of Pessimism to feel that there is nothing on earth worth the trouble of building. The real is only a "sneering comment" on the ideal, and man's life is too short to make any action worth while.
"With her the seed of Wisdom did I sow, And with mine own hands wrought to make it grow; And this is all the harvest that I reap'd, 'I come like water, and like wind I go.'"
One of the few things that we may know in life is this, that it is impossible for man to know anything absolutely. The power of reasoning is a mere "by-product in the process of Evolution." It is but an instrument to help out the confusion of the senses, and it is conditioned by the accuracy of the sense-perceptions with which it deals. There is no appeal from experience to reason, for reason is powerless to act save on the facts of human experience. Speculative philosophy can teach us nothing. The senses and the reason are intensely practical and all, our faculties are primarily adapted to immediate purposes. Instruments such as these cannot serve to probe the nature of the infinite. But no other instruments lie within reach of man. If we cannot "reach the heart of reality" by reason, what indeed can we reach? What right have we to know or to believe? And if we can know or believe nothing, what should we try to do? And how indeed can we do anything? Every man's fate is determined by his heredity and his environment. In the Arab proverb he is born with his fate bound to his neck. In the course of life we must do that which has been already cut out for us. Our parts were laid for us long before we appeared to take them. He is indeed a strong man who can vary the cast or give a different cue to those who follow. Nature is no respecter of persons, and to suppose that any man is in any degree "the arbiter of his own destiny" is pure illusion. We are thrust forth into life, against our will. Against our will we are forced to leave it. We find ourselves, as has been said, "on a steep incline, where we can veer but little to the left or right"; whichever way we move we fall finally to the very bottom. The fires we kindle die away in coals; castles we build vanish before our eyes. The river sinks in the sands of the desert. The character we form by our efforts disintegrates in spite of our effort. If life be spared we find ourselves once again helpless children. Whichever way we turn we may describe the course of life in metaphors of discouragement.
To the pessimistic philosopher the progress of the race is also mere illusion. There is no progress, only adaptation. Every creature must fit itself to its environment or pass away. The beast fits the forest for the same reason that the river fits its bed. Life is only possible under the rare conditions in which life is not destroyed.
In such fashion we may ring the changes of the despair of philosophy. If we are to take up the threads of life by the farther end only, we shall never begin to live, for only those which lie next us can ever be in our hand. To grasp at ultimate truth is to be forever empty-handed. To reach for the ultimate end of action is never to begin to act.
Deeper and more worthy of respect is the sadness of science. The effort "to see things as they really are," to get out of all make-believe and to secure that "absolute veracity of thought" without which sound action is impossible does not always lead to hopefulness.
There is much to discourage in human history, - in the facts of human life. The common man, after all the ages, is still very common. He is ignorant, reckless, unjust, selfish, easily misled. All public affairs bear the stamp of his weakness. Especially is this shown in the prevalence of destructive strife. The boasted progress of civilization is dissolved in the barbarism of war. Whether glory or conquest or commercial greed be war's purpose, the ultimate result of war is death. Its essential feature is the slaughter of the young, the brave, the ambitious, the hopeful, leaving the weak, the sickly, the discouraged to perpetuate the race. Thus all militant, nations become decadent ones. Thus the glory of Rome, her conquests and her splendor of achievement, left the Romans at home a nation of cowards, and such they are to this day. For those who survive are not the sons of the Romans, but of the slaves, scullions, the idlers and camp-followers whom the years of Roman glory could not use and did not destroy. War blasts and withers all that is worthy in the works of man.
That there seems no way out of this is the cause of the sullen despair of so many scholars of Continental Europe. The millennium is not in sight. It is farther away than fifty years ago. The future is narrowing down and men do not care to forecast it. It is enough to grasp what we may of the present. We hear "the ring of the hammer on the scaffold." "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." "The sad kings," in Watson's phrase, can only pile up fuel for their own destruction, and the failure of force will release the unholy brood which force has caused to develop. The winds of freedom are tainted by sulphurous exhalations. In all our merry-making we find with Ibsen that "there is a corpse on board." The mask is falling only to show the Death's head there concealed. Aristocracy, Democracy, Anarchy, Empire, the history of politics, is the eternal round of the Dance of Death.
When we look at human nature in detail we find more of animal than of angel, and the "veracity of thought and action," which is the choicest gift of Science, is lost in the happy-go-lucky movement of the human mob. "To see things as they really are" is the purpose of the philosophy of Pessimism in the hands of its worthiest exponents. But we know what is, and that alone, even were such knowledge possible, is not to know the truth. The higher wisdom seeks to find the forces at work to produce that which now is. The present time is the meeting time of forces; the present fact their temporary product. To the philosophy of Evolution, "every meanest day is the conflux of two eternities." Each meanest fact is the product of the world-forces that lie behind it; each meanest man the resultant of the vast powers, alive in human nature, struggling since life began. And these forces, omnipotent and eternal, will never cease their work.
To the philosophy of Pessimism, the child is a mere human larva, weak, perverse, disagreeable, the heir of mortality, with all manner of "defects of doubt and taints of blood," gathered in the long experience of its wretched parentage.
In the more hopeful view of Evolution the child exists for its possibilities. The huge forces within have thrown it to the surface of time. They will push it onward to development, which may not be much in the individual case, but beyond it all lie the possibilities of its race. Inherent in it is the power to rise, to form its own environment, to stand at last superior to the blind forces by which the human will was made. With this thought is sure to come, in some degree, the certainty that the heart of the Universe is sound, that though there be so many of us in the world, each must have his place, and each at last "be somehow needful to infinity." We can see that each least creature has its need for being. The present justifies the past. It is the transcendent future which renders the commonplace present possible.
The "dragons of the prime, That tore each other in the slime,"
lived and fought that we their descendants may realize ourselves in "lives made beautiful and sweet," through all unlikeness to dragons. It was necessary that every foot of soil in Europe should be crimsoned by blood, wantonly shed, to bring the relative peace and tolerance of the civilization of Europe today. It always "needs that offense must come" to bring about the better condition in which each particular offense shall be done away. For the evolution of life is not in straight lines from lower to higher things, but runs rather in wavering spirals. It is the resultant of stress and storm. The evil and failure which darken the present are necessary to the illumination of the future. Time is long.
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