Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/October 1877/Pessimism and its Antidote
By CHARLES NISBET.
THE consideration of general questions not admitting of definite answer, and always throwing us back on the consciousness of the extreme limitation of our knowledge, is not a profitable direction of mind, nor to be recommended as an exclusive study.
Still, occasionally, it may be wholesome, as it has confessedly a strange attraction for us, to journey to the confines of our little island of knowledge, and thence speculate a little on the trackless ocean of mystery to the navigation of which science and logic are alike inadequate. All true religion is founded on this consciousness of the infinite, of an ultimatum transcending our comprehension, but stimulating and exercising our faith.
The moral government of the world, the spiritual tendency, or indeed any dominant direction, of things, is not patent to the fleeting glance, does not reveal itself even to the most strenuous thought. The history of the world presents itself rather as a Jeremiad, as a bottomless chaos in which evil and good wrestle with each other for the mastery, and where evil generally boasts the vast majority of forces.
Savage countries lie thousands of years morally stagnating or decomposing, often physically starving, ground down under cruel despotisms and superstitions, reducing one another in perpetual warfares. The pages of the most favored countries show long chapters of declension, and the moral influxes, like angels' visits, only few and far between. The cause of Brut us opens the way to Cæsarism and death. Spain shares in the tide of new life, but that life is zealously extinguished, and the nation settles down to decay. Cromwell and his Puritanism introduce Charles II. and licentiousness. The Pilgrim Fathers, Washington, and other great men, lay with solemnity and greatness of mind the foundations of the United States, and is its history hitherto a satisfactory result? Nation after nation, Egyptian, Persian, Jewish, Grecian, Roman, Arabian, and Celtic, shoot into blossom in order to rot back into forgetfulness.
And if we take regard of the individual units that are always swarming by the millions into the world, what vast quantities get blasted out before they have well begun to cry, not to speak of the possible units frustrated of birth. And of those surviving the perils of the outset, how all get bruised and damaged sooner or later, till death comes and snuffs out the smoky tallow-lights! People made a great fuss at the time about the late William King Thompson, of Brooklyn, New York, ship-exploder, as if he had done something more than usually wicked, but now it is seen for the mere trifle it is. Say he exploded half a dozen ship-loads of men, was there, out of the six human cargoes that flew successively all at once into ten thousand pieces, as much as one individual that properly speaking ever lived, or lived other than the most insignificant sensational existence? At every change of the temperature of the atmosphere from heat to cold are not many thousands of aërial midges summoned, on very short notice indeed, from their gay discursions to face the solemnities of eternity? Animal existence is cheap as dust, the earth and stones only requiring some little mixing and kneading in order to turn off endless batches of men and women.
Consider the tens of thousands always being born in our large cities, who by bad parentage, bad conception, foul air, foul food, and all manner of evil influences, get at once summarily stamped and sealed off to depravity and perdition. Think how in all our towns are houses where choice human cattle are kept, fed, and dressed, their soundness attested (on the Continent) by qualified officials; and how your choicest human cattle, rejoicing in their spiritual culture, throng into these shows to inspect and purchase. And in this enlightened age we know this is Nature all the world over, and Nature must be obeyed.
We are proud of the present age as the triumph of trade and mechanism. And we know the high genius and aim of trade. Trade thinks only on a good balance, and is proud of a good balance, be it got out of the follies and vices of men or in whatever way. Trade is thinning the country, crowding the towns, swelling dukes' incomes, fattening distillers and brewers, disfiguring and reducing the human physique, blighting the tenderness of relations between man and man, checking you off the values of the different sorts of intellect and inspiration. And, thanks to the extreme nicety of our mechanical arrangements, we are cut down into the most fractional existences. As if the disjecta membra left on a field of battle were made to spin into some sort of galvanic life! In the higher provinces, too, your intellectual men are distributed into departments and sub-departments as writers or speakers, while life in the walks of fashion is a game of consumption and show. And when on the part of busy men the day's arduous endeavors toward the continuance of sublime human life are accomplished, and leisure is left for reflection, then a glass of beer, a pipe, cards, coffee and cake, a game at billiards or whist, a novel from the circulating library, is illimitable scope for the spiritual faculties.
And if we turn to our highest spiritual institutions we see equal signs of prosperity. At all our famous universities droves of young men called "students" are invited to profane the holiest names and symbols under the pretext of studying them, as if the first and foremost condition to intellectual activity or "study" were not a certain degree of spiritual faculty, of purification of the heart. The towns where they are collected for spiritual culture they defile more scandalously than any other class which makes no pretensions to spiritual culture.
Even if we single, out of the whole range of human history, the few men of genius whom we are constrained to regard as the eminently favored and endowed of our race, we find what a broken career has been allotted to the most of them. Have not many of them, possessing courage to inspire, intelligence to enlighten, sensibility to refine the world, sickened under the languor of neglect or got embittered at the endless contradictions and misrepresentations of their fellows, dying at last as unfortunate men, unhappy to themselves, unbeneficial to their contemporaries? What an evil is the not unfrequent depravity of genius, and which under happier circumstances might have been a great salutary influence instead! Might not the tremendous forces of Swift, for example, have been turned to better account than left to explode in shocks of half diabolic hate in earlier days, and in madness at the end? Think of the generous human heart, brave will, and clear head of Burns, a man of quite transcendent powers, yet fain to slink past on the shady side of the street, left to bleed so wretchedly to death in the midsummer of his days. Contemplate the great intellect and great heart of Lessing, a man of thrice excellent mother-wit and effectiveness, disposing with a lordly air of the whole literature of Europe, awakening with his clarion-voice his slumbering nation to new intellectual conquests, yet himself imprisoned for so many of his best years in the stifling library-dust of Wolfenbüttel, isolated there in the midst of an unhealthy swamp; the world such a dish of skimmed milk as to be incapable of any sense of honor. Was not Lessing's child a boy of remarkable sense, who no sooner came into the world than, seeing his mistake, made out of it double-quick? Is it not probable that many brave souls, braver and better perhaps than any known to fame, have gone down to silence unregarded, the world's stupidity being more than a match for the gods themselves? Think of good Edgar in "King Lear," and had he been left to die a maniac, would that, think you, have been untrue to fact?
Even the one or two to whom Fate has been most propitious, a Shakespeare, a Goethe, have not they too suffered from the bruises or flattery of Fortune, fallen at any rate far short of the fullness and balance a happier age and education might have conducted them to?
People are indeed fond of raising monuments and holding centenaries (to the so-called honor!) of great men, but do you think there is any significance at the bottom of it? Very little indeed. The fathers kill the prophets, and the sons garnish their sepulchres.
In the face of these facts and considerations how disgusting to hear the universal cant about "public opinion!" The shoemaker's opinion may indeed have some value on the matter of boots, the tailor's on that of clothes; but what opinion can the masses, all absorbed in the question of simple existence, have about government and education and religion? At best they are capable of a total heart-belief in names, of dying as martyrs for names. Dean Stanley admits that most of the noble martyrdoms have been in attestation of peculiar combinations of letters of the alphabet. See the intellect and heart of Scotland wrangling, down into the latter end of the nineteenth century (and into how many later centuries?), as to whether little children at school shall learn how to define effectual calling and distinguish between justification, adoption, and sanctification!
And all men shall be immortal? Each despicable unit must needs be an immortal and independent soul? Came from God? And God sends by special appointment such swarms of immortal souls, often in such questionable way, sinto the world? And if you are really eternal the one way, before, you must also be so the other way, behind? What, then, of your being a thousand years ago? And you do seem to carry the air of eternity about you, sleeping and digesting and pottering about nothing as you do! Is not each individual man, according to Darwin and Haeckel, but the temporary inheritor and transmitter of the qualities of his ancestors, modified by the impressions received during his own tenure of life from intercourse with people, reading, etc.? And how can the self-same life be held at one and the same time by each individual successive link in an endless chain, seeing the life devolves but in succession, and that each link in the chain sparkles into existence and luminousness only during the short term of actual possession?
It is no use arguing that men are left to their own free-wills, and have themselves to blame for their fates, when the whole complaint is simply that men have no free-wills to be left to, but are total slaves. And yet not a poor devil desecrating the earth but, under very possible circumstances, through a kinder providence and better influences, might have been saved in the first place from being born a devil. Where, then, is the moral government of the world, the ideal tendency of things, the high and lofty destinies, and all that? Schopenhauer and Bahnsen, earnest thinkers, arrive, after exhaustive examination and mature deliberation, at the conclusion that the world is not the best but the worst conceivable, the best possible issue for it annihilation, man's greatest misfortune birth, his greatest happiness death.
And yet the everlasting impossibility of accepting this as a final statement proves unquestionably its partiality—proves there must be quite a different and broader verdict. Dum spiro spero; respiration is aspiration. Life is hope, is struggle upward and onward. Healthy and robust life can set no final goal to its endeavors and hopes, but carries deep in its bosom the promise of quite an infinity of inheritance—dim and unconscious perhaps, yet latently warm and unquestioning.
Despair is death, declension from once recognized higher ideas is degeneration, violation of principles of honor and justice once recognized is inevitable injury. In the active furtherance of spiritual or universal ends alone has man solid and complete satisfaction. What is the meaning of the universal Jeremiad from the beginning of time till now but "the fall," the declension from the necessary justice and goodness? Down to the last stage of depravity the man is never at home in his depravity. It is always depravity, and not native badness. The man's unsightliness, alienation from himself and his fellows, inward sense of bankruptcy and ruin, is an eloquent, pathetic sermon in behalf of the true. Injustice, selfishness, disavowal of obligations, seizure of others' property, never enriched or profited a man, but has always been so much inward contraction, induration, plethora, deliration—always so much disease involving so much pain, demanding so much expiation.
The subordination of self in the pious recognition of the eternal laws (= religion) and the adequate willing execution of the same (= art)—that alone is life, and a man is more or less according to the measure of his possession of this life. In the name of God, which is our highest expression of the world, is recognized something higher than our utmost sense of the just, good, and beautiful. If, then, our hearts go out in fervent, irrepressible longings of love toward the great men who have met on this planet the most unhandsome reception, if we demand that the heavy debt of love and esteem which was due to Lessing, for example, but never paid, be at last made good to him, that this excellent spirit, which out of a full heart would radiate to the quickening and enlightening of his country and Europe, do not strike his beams into emptiness, but that he himself also be gladdened by the warm reflection of his own light—is there, are we to suppose, nothing in the heart of things, nothing in the primal intellect and heart corresponding to this unsubduable demand on the part of our remote individual consciousness? Shall the mother-sun be less warm than a reflex ray of itself? If, again, our hearts, though so poor and insensible, can yet break in salt sorrow over the confused helpless misery of the masses, is the prayer that bursts involuntarily from them not in accord with the heart of God himself? Is it a foolish and false impulse which Nature stirs in the heart of the mother when she recognizes a quite infinite value in the poor helpless chick newly-born to her? When Jesus Christ appeared as a symbol of love and mercy in this world, preaching the prodigal son, and proclaiming the God of this world to be a God of righteousness and compassion, could the hearts of his hearers remain insensible to the manifestation and the sermon? Have not the words been caught up as the truest gospel of the highest God? And in Jesus Christ, who felt an unspeakable interest even in the outcasts of society, and whose attitude toward the morally wrecked man, in whom desires and appetites had devoured all the handsome capital and prospects and possibilities in life, was not the side sniff of cold disdain, but condemnation into everlasting fire or an infinite yearning of compassion—in this appearance of Jesus Christ on earth have not men been constrained worshipfully to recognize the truest incarnation of God? Religion which sinks in us all personal regards, which would bring us into immediate communion with the Supreme, is ever a consciousness of inexhaustible resources—is more than a counterpoise for all the ills of life, and all the black facts which history can adduce—is a power which can dwarf all history, all the hitherto actual, into the insignificance of a mere prelude, and not an essential act in the drama of life itself.
Meanwhile, over and above this general reflection, which, if needed, can always serve as our last impregnable resource, it is possible to predicate particularly some of the advantages, and even the absolute necessity, of the confusion and misery everywhere attaching to reality.
This confused world of good and evil is the right arena and training-school for battle, enterprise, patience—for all the active and indeed also all the passive virtues. The baseness, stupidity, folly, injustice, suffering, and wreck, this world everywhere presents, are always a splendid challenge to strength, diligence, endurance, faith, wisdom—to all sublime and manly qualities. Sloth, indolence, sweet dreaminess, and credulity, have a hard time of it here—meet every day with the shrewdest rubs and tosses till they are either forced into wakefulness or gored into death. A long-living and prosperous nation must plough the soil, must sail the sea, must live much out-of-doors, must ever be prepared to defend its own against the whole surrounding world. And the artist or man of letters must not ensconce himself too much in his cozy study, but lay himself open to the shock of opposition and the misconstruction of his fellows, must not shrink from the experience of unkindly facts to try his nerve and test his digestion. Only to the man who lives industriously, moderately, honestly, truthfully, and piously, does God vouchsafe higher closures; and to the man who will eat the bread that has been by the labor of other hands procured for him without paying an equivalent, the kingdom of heaven is forever shut.
The personal pain, lauguishment, and imbitteredness, do not spoil for the brave man his appreciation of life, but by persistent faith and well-doing he subdues and converts contrarieties into furtherances. Socrates and Paul and Cromwell and Milton did not break their hearts or give up the tight. Lessing, after all the languor and sickness of Wolfenbüttel, refused to die, though he bore in his heart the deadly ravages of fate, till he had first presented to his ungrateful country his large-hearted offering of "Nathan der Weise." Nor was he egoistically looking forward to a world of happiness beyond the grave, as compensation for his sufferings, as reward for his magnanimous services.
"He heeded not reviling tones,
Nor sold his heart to idle moans,
Think what sort of world it would be without the pain and persecution. When in our church-pews our ears are tickled with the sweet eloquence about heaven, where there will be no tragedy, no pain, no tears, no trial of temper, no tempers, no passions, no black, all white, only white, everlasting singing, and so on, does not every masculine heart feel the most melancholy misgivings about the concern? would he not willingly sell out on that policy even at a liberal discount, could he but invest with the realized capital in this troublous yet withal interesting planet?
The truth is, the mixture and antithesis is the appetizing quality in the fare of life. The dangers, misunderstandings, jealousies, errors, and seductions, on the one hand; on the other hand the joy in healthy relations to the sensuous world, and in the esthetic contemplation of it, the sense of the ludicrous and ridiculous evermore tickled by the wonderful conjunctions of the sublime and vulgar in human affairs, the feeling of heaven in true relations to our fellow men and women, in work accomplished and duty performed, the highest bliss of all in the recognition of, and nearer and nearer identification with, the Supreme Spirit; the sense, in short, of a hell on the one hand to be shunned, and a heaven on the other to be enjoyed—whoever vividly realizes all this will not underrate life on this planet, but infinitely prize it.
Yes, this earth is dear to mortal men, not merely in spite of its tears and crosses, but also on account of them. The bitterest experiences we pass through need but to drift to the due distance in the past, and they assume a wonderfully interesting guise. Strangely, tenderly affecting in the retrospect are our riotous "Hal" days, our sighing Venus and Adonis fit, our sultry Werther fever, our sweet and bitter Faust period, and all the other dear illusions which beset us on our devious path.
For indeed we prize life not by the sum of our possessions, but only by the rate and steadiness of our growth. "Not the possession," says Lessing, "or fancied possession of the truth, but the endeavor after it, determines a man's value. If God held in his right hand the sum total of truth, and in his left the ever-inextinguishable desire after truth, though linked with the condition of everlastingly wandering in error, and called to me, 'Choose,' I should humbly close with the left and answer: 'Father, give me this; the truth pure and simple is for thee alone.' "
But if we will have cleared to ourselves at the highest court what it is that imparts to error, crime, and tragedy, their powerful attraction, so that they are indispensable to high poetry and music and art, we shall find it is only because they constitute a dark background to heighten the play of the lightnings, to glorify the splendor of the sun. The trial and sorrow and humiliation serve to bring out in distincter outline the faith and serenity and triumph which, as in St. Paul, are more than a match for all the powers of darkness. Our conviction of the dominance and necessity of moral law is so deeply grounded, that the storm and earthquake threatening its upheaval only summon into livelier consciousness our inexpugnable confidence. Let the heavens fall. Though the earth be removed, God is our refuge.
It is the conscious or unconscious conviction of every sound man that truth is better and more beautiful than any delusion—that a man's well-being is the measure of his conformity to truth. Does a man find his hitherto solid philosophy impugned, his most holy religion out of joint with new emerging facts, he will not shut his ears to the severe reason. Does Science come and knock from under his feet the ground of immortality on which he had rested, it may help only to startle him out of his egoism—startle him on to some firmer footing. He must feel the immortality in the present, and not postpone it to the future. Only he who has eternal life in him(= intellectual recognition of, and hearty identification with, eternal law) is eternal. If Darwinism is true, and a man's spiritual supremacy is also true, the two facts will square with each other. For mind and Nature are the type and impression, in perfect correspondence to each other. The harshest exception is, when properly understood, no exception but a confirmation of the beautiful law. Depth and wholeness of vision will always be song and piety, be Dante and Shakespeare, never skepticism and mockery. The reconciliation of the spirit with Fate and Nature is a grace which rests sweetly and unconsciously in the heart of simple goodness, but is also the crowning grace of the boldest intellect which has pierced deep enough. Plato, Shakespeare, Milton, Newton, Kant, Goethe, and Schiller, are reverent worshipers, and walk in the sanctuary above arm-in-arm with Christ and the apostles. We see, in the "Nathan der Weise," how the brave Lessing received before death in fullest measure the gift of reconciliation.
And out of the perplexities and corruptions and misunderstandings of human affairs we have in Nature, which ever over-canopies and surrounds us, a retreat into the beautiful, where we can evermore refresh our sense and conviction of the holy. The sun, stars, woods, grasses, shells, birds, and wild creatures, are not corrupt, or at least do not suggest to man, when he contemplates them as a whole (æsthetically and not scientifically)—do not suggest images of corruption; but the poor besotted wretch beholds a perfect splendor in the sun, the prey of ruinous appetites looks into an eye of innocence in the flowers, the bankrupt gazes around and above him, and wonders why in a royal palace he should be a blot and disgrace.
As soon as the man rises above his desires, and throws the roots of his being beyond the narrow confines of his egoism into the spiritual realm, where his own individual self sinks in other individuals, where other individuals become as much his proper interest as himself, then the soul becomes one with the universal soul, and perfect reconciliation is enjoyed. The man's past pains are healed, his very sins and sorrows yield themselves to him as experience and instruction and romance.
The devil himself is subdued into good. Job's latter days are more beautiful than his early days. Through his sorrows and errors, Faust at last attains to a wider and holier life. The attraction to Gretchen, notwithstanding the sensuous illusions, has, in the heart of it, a soul of love and sacredness, and through the deep welter of sin and suffering is purified at last into sanctity. Do you think Faust in the end would annihilate his experience of Gretchen if it were possible? No, the earth and heaven are dearer because of her. Gretchen is universalized, and the universal is Gretchenized; the world is all a sacred, pathetic Gretchen.
That an unhappy life may be happier than a happy one is indeed a paradox, but is meant in earnest. A tragedy is more delightful than a comedy. Or a comedy is better for a mixture, and strong mixture, of tragedy, so the tragedy only get digested in the end. Black is necessary not only to the relief, but even to the very composition of white. I should not choose a life of uninterrupted pleasure, were the world to engage its utmost to secure it me. The lightning is born of the darkness; and the battle, joy, and splendor of life are to be measured by the amount of opposition overcome.
"They say best men are moulded out of faults,
And, for the most, become much more the better
Let us with assured hearts trust the Cause of all, who has created the good and the evil, but has, we believe, made the evil to be ultimately subservient to the good.—Macmillan's Magazine.