Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 82.djvu/507

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503
THE NEW OPTIMISM

which belongs to the healthy body. Pessimism is the mental reflex of disturbed function, sometimes of the nerves, commonly of the liver or kidneys.

Then, secondly, pessimism comes in part from the over-seriousness and over-sensitiveness of the age, the incidental accompaniment of what we have called the adolescent stage in the development of human consciousness. The childhood of the race has past. We have become self-conscious, reflective, conscientious, a little careworn. The boyish, rollicking, happy-go-lucky abandon and exuberance of spirit exhibited in the writings of Shakespeare's times are absent now. In those days social conditions were relatively bad and comforts few, yet they did not care so much. They did not take life too seriously. They ate, drank, laughed, and died when their time came. Now we worry more. Writers like Tolstoi take life very seriously. Conditions in Russia are no doubt bad, but they are not worse than they have been and they are not sufficiently bad to fill a man's soul with such bottomless gloom as they did the soul of Tolstoi. His was an extreme case of the oversensitiveness and over-conscientiousness of the age. He was unhappy because he had bread when others hungered, a condition which in former times has usually been the occasion of rejoicing. Our own sins and the sins of our legislators, our political leaders, and our masters of capital lie like an incubus on our spirits.

Thus we have already anticipated the third ground of pessimism. It is that we compare our present condition not with the past but with the ideal future, or rather with an ideal state which consciousness itself creates. Our physical condition, could it have been foreseen by Francis Bacon, would have seemed a veritable paradise. But we are not happy. Our workmen have better wages and fewer hardships than ever workmen had before, yet they are not satisfied. The New Atlantis is ever in the future. Thus, we come back to the position already indicated, that human consciousness is a wellspring of progress. It creates ideals and it is with these ideals that we compare our present attainments and pronounce them imperfect. This is what makes progress possible. It is the eternal unrest, the eternal aspiration of the human mind, which is never satisfied with the good, but urges us ever forward to something better.

We often hear reference made to "political unrest," as if it were some inherent social defect, a mere petulant, purposeless fault finding. But it is not a defect. It is the voice of progress proclaiming its discontent with the present and demanding improvement; not an idle but a rational discontent, recognizing the real evils of the times and perceiving more or less clearly the direction of the upward way. What, therefore, appears as pessimism is really the ground of the highest optimism. There is no static happiness, no happiness of mere content and satisfaction. What we require is growth, movement, struggle, aspiration, conquest.