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- The Philosophy of Despair - 3/4 -
"God tosses back to man his failures" one by one, and gives him time and strength to try again.
According to Schopenhauer, we move across the stage of life stung by appetite and goaded by desire, in pain unceasing, the sole respite from pain, the instant in which desire is lost in satisfaction. To do away with desire is to destroy pain, but it also destroys existence. Desire is lost where the "mouth is stopped with dust," and with death only comes relief from pain.
Thus the Pessimist tells us that "the only reality in life is pain." But surely this is not the truth. He who knows no reality save appetite has never known life at all. The realities in life are love and action; not desire, but the exercise of our appointed functions.
Action follows sensation. The more we have to do the more accurate must be our sensations, the greater the hold environment has upon us. Broader activities demand better knowledge of our surroundings. Greater sensitiveness to external things means greater capacity for pain, hence greater suffering, when the natural channels of effort are closed. Thus arises the hope for nothingness in which many sensitive souls have indulged. With no surroundings at all, or with environment that never varies, there could be no sense-perception. To see nothing, to feel nothing - there could be no demand for action. With no failure of action there could be no weariness. From the varied environment of earthly life spring, through adaptation, the varied powers and varied sensibilities, susceptibilities to joy and pain as well as the rest. The greater the sensitiveness the greater the capacity for suffering. Hence the "quenching of desire," the "turning toward Nirvana, the, desire to escape from the hideous bustle of a world in which we are able to take no part, is a natural impulse with the soul which feels but cannot or will not act.
"Can it be, O Christ in Heaven, That the highest suffer most, That the strongest wander farthest And most hopelessly are lost? -
That the mark of rank in Nature Is capacity for pain, And the anguish of the singer Marks the sweetness of the strain?
That this must be so rests in the very nature of things. The most perfect instrument is one most easily thrown out of adjustment. The most highly developed organism is the most exactly fitted to its functions, the one most deeply injured when these functions are altered or suppressed.
Man's sensations and power to act must go together. Man can know nothing that he cannot somehow weave into action. If he fails to do this in one form or another, it is through limitations he has placed on himself. Man cannot suffer for lack of "more worlds to conquer," because his power to conquer worlds is the product of his own 'past life and his own past needs. To weave knowledge into action is the antidote for ennui. To plan, to hope, to do, to accomplish the full measure of our powers, whatever they may be, is to turn away from Nirvana to real life. A useful man, a helpful man, an active man in any sense, even though his, activity be misdirected or harmful, is always a hopeful man.
The feeling that "the only reality in life is pain," is the sign not of philosophical acuteness but of bodily under-vitalization. The nervous system is too feeble for the body it has to move. To act is to make the environment your servant. Its pressure is no longer pain but joy. The concessions which life has made to time and space are the source of life's glory and power.
The function of the nervous system is to carry from the environment to the brain the impressions of truth, that action may be true and safe. Pain and pleasure are both incidental to sound action. The one drives, the other coaxes us toward the path of wisdom. If pain is in excess of joy in our experience, it is because we have wandered from the path of normal activity. By right-doing, we mean that action which makes for "abundance of life," and abundance of life means fulness of joy. "Though life be sad, yet there's joy in the living it" was the word of the ancient Greeks, "who ever with a frolic welcome took the Thunder and the Sunshine."
The life of man is dynamic, not static; not a condition but a movement. "Not enjoyment and not sorrow" is its end or justification. It is a rush of forces, an evolution towards greater activities and higher adjustment, the growth of a stability which shall be ever more unstable. This onward motion is recognized in the pessimistic philosophy of Von Hartmann, as a movement towards ever greater possibilities of pain. With him life is "the supreme blunder of the blind unconscious force" which created man and developed him as the prey of ever-increasing suffering.
But the power to enjoy has grown in like degree, and both joy and pain are subordinated to the power to act. The human will, the power to do, is the real end of the stress and struggle of the ages. However limited its individual action, the will finds its place among the gigantic factors in the evolution of life. It is not the present, but the ultimate, which is truth. Not the unstable and temporary fact but the boundless clashing forces which endlessly throw truths to the surface.
Another source of Pessimism is the reaction from unearned pleasures and from spurious joys. It is the business of the senses to translate realities, to tell the truth about us in terms of human experience. Every real pleasure has its cost in some form of nervous activity. What we get we must earn, if it is to be really ours. Long ago, in the infancy of civilization, man learned that there were drugs in Nature, cell products of the growth or transformation of "our brother organisms, the plants," by whose agency pain was turned to pleasure. By the aid of these outside influences he could clear "today of past regrets and future fears," and strike out from the sad "calendar unborn tomorrow and dead yesterday."
That the joys thus produced had no real objective existence, man was not long in finding out, and it soon appeared that for each subjective pleasure which had no foundation in action, there was a subjective sorrow, likewise unrelated to external things.
But that the pains more than balanced the joys, and that the indulgence in unearned deceptions destroyed sooner or later all capacity for enjoyment, man learned more slowly.
The joys of wine, of opium, of tobacco and of all kindred drugs are mere tricks upon the nervous system. In greater or less degree they destroy its power to tell the truth, and in proportion as they have seemed to bring subjective happiness, so do they bring at last subjective horror and disgust. And this utter soul-weariness of drugs has found its way into literature as the expression of Pessimism.
"The City of the Dreadful Night," for example, does not find its inspiration in the misery of selfish, rushing, crowded London. It is the effect of brandy on the sensitive mind of an exquisitive poet. Not the world, but the poet, lies in the "dreadful night" of self-inflicted insomnia. Wherever these subjective nerve influences find expression in literature it is either in an infinite sadness, or in hopeless gloom. James Thompson says in the "City of the Dreadful Night":
"The city is of night but not of sleep; There sweet sleep is not for the weary brain. The pitiless hours like years and ages creep - A night seems termless hell. This dreadful strain Of thought and consciousness which never ceases, Or which some moment's stupor but increases."
* * *
"This Time which crawleth like a monstrous snake, Wounded and slow and very venomous."
* * *
'Lo, as thus prostrate in the dust I write My heart's deep languor and my soul's sad tears - But why evoke the spectres of black night To blot the sunshine of exultant years!
"Because a cold rage seizes one at times To show the bitter, old and wrinkled truth, Stripped naked of all vesture that beguiles False dreams, false hopes, false masks and modes of youth."
All this, alas, is the inevitable physical outcome of the attempt to -
"Divorce old, barren Reason from my house To take the daughter of the vine to spouse."
All subjective happiness due to nerve stimulation is of the nature of mania. In proportion to its intensity is the certainty that it will be followed by its subjective reaction, the "Nuit Blanche," the "dark brown taste," by the experience of "the difference in the morning." The only melancholy drugs can drive away is that which they themselves produce. It is folly to use as a source of pleasure that which lessens activity and vitiates life.
There are many other causes which induce depression of mind and disorder of nerve. Where nerve decay is associated with genius and culture, we shall find some phase of the philosophy of Pessimism. In fact, cheerfulness is not primarily a result of right thinking, but rather the expression of sound nerves and normal vegetative processes. Most of the philosophy of despair, the longing to know the meaning of the unattainable, vanishes with active out-of-door life and the consequent flow of good health. Even a dose of quinine may convert to hopefulness when both sermons and arguments fail.
For a degree of optimism is a necessary accompaniment of health. It is as natural as animal heat, and is the mental reflex of it. Pessimism arises from depression or irritation or failure of the nerves. It is a symptom of lowered vitality expressed in terms of the mind.
There is a philosophical Pessimism, as I have already said, over and above all merely physical conditions, and not dependent on them. But the melancholy Jacques of our ordinary experience either uses some narcotic or stimulant to excess, or else has trouble with his liver or kidneys. "Liver complaint," says Zangwill, "is the Prometheus myth done into modern English." Already historical criticism has shown that the Bloody Assizes had its origin in disease of the bladder, and most forms of vice and cruelty resolve themselves into decay of the nerves. It is natural that degeneration should bring discouragement and disgust. But whatever the causes of Pessimism, whether arising in speculative philosophy in nervous disease or in personal failure, it can never be wrought into sound and helpful life. To live effectively implies the belief that life is worth living, and no one who leads a worthy life has ever for a moment doubted this.
Such an expression as "worth living" has in fact no real meaning. To act and to love are the twin functions of the human body and soul. To refuse
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