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- The Philosophy of Despair - 4/4 -
these functions is to make one's self incapable of them. It is in a sense to die while the body is still alive. To refuse these functions is to make misery out of existence, and a life of ennui is doubtless not "worth living."
The philosophy of life is its working hypothesis of action. To hold that all effort is futile, that all knowledge is illusion, and that no result of the human will is worth the pain of calling it into action, is to cut the nerve of effectiveness. In proportion as one really believes this, he becomes a cumberer of the ground. It was said of Oscar McCulloch, an earnest student of human life, that "in whatever part of God's universe he finds himself, he will be a hopeful man, looking forward and not backward, looking upward and not downward, always ready to lend a helping hand, and not afraid to die."
Of like spirit was Robert Louis Stevenson:
"Glad did I live and gladly die, And I laid me down with a will."
It is through men of this type that the work of civilization has been accomplished, "men of present valor, stalwart, brave iconoclasts." They were men who were content with the order of the universe as it is, and seek only to place their own actions in harmony with this order. They have no complaints to urge against "the goodness and severity of God," nor any futile wish "to remould it nearer to the heart's desire." The "Fanaticism for Veracity" is satisfied with what is. Not the ultimate truth which is God's alone, but the highest attainable truth, is the aim of Science, and to translate Science into Virtue is the goal of civilization.
The third question which Science may ask is the direct one. In what part of the universe are you, and what are you doing? Thoreau says that "there is no hope for you unless this bit of sod under your feet is the sweetest to you in this world - in any world." Why not? Nowhere is the sky so blue, the grass so green, the sunshine so bright, the shade so welcome, as right here, now, today. No other blue sky, nor bright sunshine, nor welcome shade exists for you. Other skies are bright to other men. They have been bright in the past and so will they be again, but yours are here and now. Today is your day and mine, the only day we have, the day in which we play our part. What our part may signify in the great whole we may not understand, but we are here to play it, and now is the time. This we know, it is a part of action, not of whining. It is a part of love, not cynicism. It is for us to express love in terms of human helpfulness. This we know, for we have learned from sad experience that any other course of life leads toward decay and waste.
What, then, are you doing under these blue skies? The thing you do should be for you the most important thing in the world. If you could do something better than you are doing now, everything considered, why are you not doing it?
If every one did the very best he knew, most of the problems of human life would be already settled. If each one did the best he knew, he would be on the highway to greater knowledge, and therefore still better action. The redemption of the world is waiting only for each man to "lend a hand."
It does not matter if the greatest thing for you to do be not in itself great. The best preparation for greatness comes in doing faithfully the little things that lie nearest. The nearest is the greatest in most human lives.
Even washing one's own face may be the greatest present duty. The ascetics of the past, who scorned cleanliness in the search for godliness, became, sometimes, neither clean nor holy. For want of a clean face they lost their souls.
It was Agassiz's strength that he knew the value of today. Never were such bright skies as arched above him; nowhere else were such charming associates, such budding students, such secrets of nature fresh to his hand. His was the buoyant strength of the man who can look the stars in the face because he does his part in the Universe as well as they do theirs. It is the fresh, unspoiled confidence of the natural man, who finds the world a world of action and joy, and time all too short for the fulness of life which it demands. When Agassiz died, "the best friend that ever student had," the students of Harvard "laid a wreath of laurel on his bier, and their manly voices sang a requiem, for he had been a student all his life long, and when he died he was younger than any of them."
Optimism in life is a good working hypothesis, if by optimism we mean the open-eyed faith that force exerted is never lost. Much that calls itself faith is only the blindness of self-satisfaction.
What if there are so many of us in the ranks of humanity? What if the individual be lost in the mass as a pebble cast into the Seven Seas? Would you choose a world so small as to leave room for only you and your satellites? Would you ask for problems of life so tame that even you could grasp them? Would you choose a fibreless Universe to be "remoulded nearer to the heart's desire," in place of the wild, tough, virile, man-making environment from which the Attraction of Gravitation lets none of us escape?
It is not that "I come like water and like wind I go." I am here today, and the moment and the place are real, and my will is itself one of the fates that make and unmake all things. "Every meanest day is the conflux of two eternities," and in this center of all time and space for the moment it is I that stand. Great is Eternity, but it is made up of time. Could we blot out one day in the midst of time, Eternity could be no more. The feebleness of man has its place within the infinite Omnipotence.
It is a question not of hope or despair, but of truth, not of optimism nor of Pessimism, but of wisdom. Wisdom is knowing what to do next; virtue is doing it. Religion is the heart impulse that turns toward the best and highest course of action. "It was my duty to have loved the highest. What does that demand? What have I to do next? Not in infinity, where we can do nothing, but here, today, the greatest day that ever was, for it alone is mine!
What matter is it that time does not end with us? Neither with us does history begin. An Emperor of China once decreed that nothing should be before him, that all history should begin with him. But he could go no farther than his own decree. Who are you that would be Emperor of China?
"The eternal Saki from that bowl hath poured Millions of bubbles like us and shall pour."
Why not? Should life stop with you? What have you done that you should mark the end of time? If you have played your part in the procession of bubbles, all is well, though the best you can do is to leave the world a little better for the next that follows.
If you have not made life a little richer and its conditions a little more just by your living you have not touched the world. You are indeed a bubble. If some kind friend somewhere "turn down an empty glass," it will be the best monument you deserve. But to have had a friend is to leave the glass not wholly empty, for life is justified in love as well as in action.
The words of Omar need to be read with the rising inflection, and they become the expression of exultant hopefulness.
"The eternal Saki from that bowl hath poured Millions of bubbles and shall pour!"
Small though we are the story is not all told when we are dead. The huge procession goes on and shall go on, till the secret of the grand symphony of life is reached.
"A single note in the Eternal Song A perfect Singer hath had need for me."
* * *
"I do rejoice that when of Thee and Me Men speak no longer, yet not less but more The Eternal Saki still that bowl shall fill And ever fairer, clearer bubbles pour."
In the same way we must read with the rising inflection the lines of Tennyson:
"I falter when I firmly trod, And falling with my weight of cares, Upon the World's great altar-stairs That slope through darkness, up to god!"
Read these words with courage, and with the upward turn of the voice at the end. It is no longer in the darkness that we falter. The great altar-stairs of which no man knows the beginning nor the end, do not spring from the mire nor end in the mists. They "slope through darkness up to God," and no one could ask a stronger expression of that robust optimism which must be the mainspring of successful life.
*END THE SMALL PRINT! FOR PUBLIC DOMAIN EBOOKS*Ver.02/11/02*END*
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