Is Life Worth Living Journal


Our shadowy congregation rested still,
As musing on that message we had heard
And brooding on that ‘ End it when you will;’
Perchance awaiting yet some other word;
When keen as lightning through amuffled sky
Sprang forth a shrill and lamentable cry:
The man speaks sooth, alas! the man speaks sooth
We have no personal life beyond the grave;
There is no God; Fate knows nor wrath nor ruth:
Can I find here the comfort which I crave?
In all eternity I had one chance,
One few years’ term of gracious human life:
The splendors of the intellect’s advance,
The sweetness of the home with babes and wife;
The social pleasures with their genial wit;
The fascination of the worlds of art;
The glories of the worlds of nature, lit
By large imagination’s glowing heart;
The rapture of mere being, full of health;
The careless childhood and the ardent youth,
The strenuous manhood winning various wealth,
The reverend age serene with life’s long truth
All the sublime prerogatives of Man;
The storied memories of the times of old,
The patient tracking of the world’s great plan
Through sequences and changes myriadfold.
This chance was never offered me before;
For me the infinite past is blank and dumb:
This chance recurreth never, nevermore;
Blank, blank for me the infinite To-come.
And this sole chance was frustate from my birth,
A mockery, adelusion; and my breath
Of noble human life upon this earth
So racks me that I sigh for senseless death.
My wine of life is poison mixed with gall,
My noonday passes in a nightmare dream,
I worse than lose the years which are my all:
What can console me for the loss supreme ?
Speak not of comfort where no comfort is,
Speak not at all: can words make foul things fair?
Our life’s a cheat, our death a black abyss:
Hush and be mute envisaging despair.-
Is /ife Worth Living.? 5
This vehement voice came from the northern aisle
Rapid and shrill to its abrupt harsh close;
And none gave answer for a certain while,
For words must shrink from these most wordless woes;
At last the pulpit speaker simply said,
With humid eyes and thoughtful, drooping head,-
My Brother, my poor Brothers, it is thus;
This life itself holds nothing good for us,
But it ends soon and nevermore can be
And we knew nothing of it ere our birth,
And shall know nothing when consigned to earth:
I ponder these thoughts and they comfort me.”
“It ends soon and nevermore shall be. . . . Lo! you are
free to end it when you will”-these verses flow truthfully
from poor James Thomson’s pen, and are in truth a consolation
for all to whom, as to him, the earth is far more like a steady
den of fear than a continual fountain of delight. That life is
not worth living the whole army of suicides declare-an army
whose roll-call, like the famous evening drum-beat of the
British army, follows the sun round the world and never
terminates. We, too, as we sit here in our comfort, must
” ponder these things” also, for we are of one substance with
these suicides, and their life is the life we share. The plainest
intellectual integrity, nay, more, the simplest manliness
and honor, forbid us to forget their case.
” If suddenly,” says Mr. Ruskin, ” in the midst of the enjoyments of the
palate and lightnesses of heart of a London dinner-party the walls of the chamber
were parted, and through their gap the nearest human beings who were
famishing and in misery were borne into the midst of the company feasting and
fancy free-if, pale from death, horrible in destitution, broken by despair, body
by body, they were laid upon the soft carpet, one beside the chair of every guest,
would only the crumbs of the dainties be cast to them-would only a passing
glance, a passing thought, be vouchsafed to them ? Yet the actual facts, the real
relation of each Dives and Lazarus, are not altered by the intervention of the
house-wall between the table and the sick-bed-by the few feet of ground (how
few!) which are, indeed, all that separate the merriment from the misery.”
To come immediately to the heart of my theme, then, what
I propose is to imagine ourselves reasoning with a fellowmortal
who is on such terms with life that the only comfort
6 International -7ournal of Ethics.
left him is to brood on the assurance “you may end it when
you will.” What reasons can we plead that may render such
a brother (or sister) willing to take up the burden again?
Ordinary Christians, reasoning with would-be suicides, have
little to offer them beyond the usual negative ” thou shalt not.”
God alone is master of life and death, they say, and it is a
blasphemous act to anticipate his absolving hand. But can
we find nothing richer or more positive than this, no reflections
to urge whereby the suicide may actually see, and in all
sad seriousness feel, that in spite of adverse appearances even
for him life is worth living still? There are suicides and
suicides-in the United States about three thousand of them
every year-and I must frankly confess that with perhaps the
majority of these my suggestions are impotent to deal. Where
suicide is the result of insanity or sudden frenzied impulse,
reflection is impotent to arrest its headway, and cases like
these belong to the ultimate mystery of evil concerning which
I can only offer considerations tending towards religious
patience at the end of this hour. My task, let me say now, is
practically narrow, and my words are to deal only with that
metaphysical tedium vitk which is peculiar to reflecting men.
Most of you are devoted for good or evil to the reflective life.
Many of you are students of philosophy, and have already felt
in your own persons the scepticism and unreality that too
much grubbing in the abstract roots of things will breed.
This is, indeed, one of the regular fruits of the over-studious
career. Too much questioning and too little active responsibility
lead, almost as often as too much sensualism, to the
edge of the slope at the bottom of which lie pessimism and
the nightmare or suicidal view of life. But to the diseases
which reflection breeds, still further reflection can oppose
effective remedies; and it is of the melancholy and Weltschmerz
bred of reflection that I now proceed to speak.
Let me say immediately that my final appeal is to nothing
more recondite than religious faith. So far as my argument
is to be destructive, it will consist in nothing more than the
sweeping away of certain views that often keep the springs of
religious faith compressed; and so far as it is to be constructive
Is Life Worth Living? 7
it will consist in holding up to the light of day certain considerations
calculated to let loose these springs in a normal,
natural way. Pessimism is essentially a religious disease. In
the form of it to which you are most liable it consists in
nothing but a religious demand to which there comes no
normal religious reply.
Now there are two stages of recovery from this disease, two
different levels upon which one may emerge from the midnight
view to the daylight view of things, and I must treat of
them in turn. The second stage is the more complete and
joyous, and it corresponds to the freer exercise of religious
trust and fancy. There are, as is well known, persons who are
naturally very free in this regard, others who are not at all so.
There are persons, for instance, whom we find indulging to
their heart’s content in prospects of immortality, and there
are others who experience the greatest difficulty in making
such a notion seem real to themselves at all. These latter
persons are tied to their senses, restricted to their natural experience;
and many of them moreover feel a sort of intellectual
loyalty to what they call hard facts which is positively
shocked by the easy excursions into the unseen that they
witness other people make at the bare call of sentiment.
Minds of either class may, however, be intensely religious.
They may equally desire atonement, harmony, reconciliation;
and crave acquiescence and communion with the total Soul
of Things. But the craving, when the mind is pent in to the
hard facts, especially as “Science” now reveals them, can
breed pessimism quite as easily as it breeds optimism when it
inspires religious trust and fancy to wing their way to another
and a better world.
This is why I call pessimism an essentially religious disease.
The nightmare view of life has plenty of organic sources, but
its great refective source in these days, and at all times, has
been the contradiction between the phenomena of Nature and
the craving of the heart to believe that behind Nature there
is a spirit whose expression Nature is. What philosophers
call natural theology has been one way of appeasing this craving.
The poetry of Nature in which our English literature
8 International journall of Ethics.
is so rich has been another way. Now suppose a mind of the
latter of our two classes, whose imagination is pent in consequently,
and who takes its facts ” hard ;” suppose it, moreover,
to feel strongly the craving for communion, and yet to realize
how desperately difficult it is to construe the scientific order
of Nature either theologically or poetically, and what result
can there be but inner discord and contradiction ? Now this
inner discord (merely as discord) can be relieved in either
of two ways. The longing to read the facts religiously may
cease, and leave the bare facts by themselves. Or supplementary
facts may be discovered or believed in, which permit
the religious reading to go on. And these two ways of relief
are the two stages of recovery, the two levels of escape from
pessimism, to which I made allusion a moment ago, and which
what follows will, I trust, make more clear.
Starting then with Nature, we naturally tend, if we have
the religious craving, to saywith Marcus Aurelius, 0 Universe,
what thou wishest I wish. Our sacred books and traditions
tell us of one God who made heaven and earth, and looking
on them saw that they were good. Yet, on more intimate
acquaintance, the visible surfaces of heaven and earth refuse
to beabrought by us into any intelligible unity at all. Every
phenomena that we would praise there exists cheek by jowl
with some contrary phenomenon that cancels all its religious
effect upon the mind. Beauty and hideousness, love and
cruelty, life and death keep house together in indissoluble
partnership; and there gradually steals over us, instead of the
old warni notion of a man-loving Deity, that of an awful Power
that neither hates nor loves, but rolls all things together
meaninglessly to a common doom. This is an uncanny, a
sinister, a nightmare view of life, and its peculiar unheimlichkeit
or poisonousness lies expressly in our holding two things together
which cannot possibly agree,-in our clinging on the
one hand to the demand that there shall be a living spirit of
the whole, and, on the other, to the belief that the course of
nature must be such a spirit’s adequate manifestation and ex-
Is Lfe Wortk Living? 9
pression. It is in the contradiction between the supposed
being of a spirit that encompasses and owns us and with which
we ought to have some communion, and the character of such
a spirit, as revealed by the visible world’s course, that this
particular death-in-life paradox and this melancholy-breeding
puzzle reside. Carlyle expresses the result in that chapter
of his immortal Sartor Resartus entitled the Everlasting No.
“I ended,” says poor Teufelsdr6ckh, ” by living in a continual
indefinite pining fear; tremulous, pusillanimous, apprehensive
of I knew not what. It seemed as if all things in the Heavens
above and the Earth beneath would hurt me; as if the Heavens
and the Earth were but boundless Jaws of a devouring Monster,
wherein I, palpitating, lay waiting to be devoured.”
This is the first stage of speculative melancholy. No brute
can have this sort of melancholy, no man that is irreligious
can become its prey. It is the sick shudder of the frustrated
religious demand, and not the mere necessary outcome of
animal experience. Teufelsdr6ckh himself could have made
shift to face the general chaos and bedevilment of this world’s
experiences very well were he not the victim of. an originally
unlimited trust and affection towards them. If he might meet
them piecemeal, with no suspicion of any Whole expressing
itself in them, shunning the bitter parts and husbanding the
sweet ones, as the occasion served, and as (to use a vulgar
phrase) he struck it fat or lean, he could have zigzagged fairly
towards an easy end, and felt no obligation to make the air
vocal with his lamentations. The mood of levity, of ” I don’t
care,” is for this world’s ills a sovereign and practical anxsthetic.
But no! something deep down in Teufelsdr6ckh and
in the rest of us tells us that there is a spirit in things to
which we owe allegiance and for whose sake we must keep up
the serious mood, and so the inner fever and discord also are
kept up-for Nature taken on her visible surface reveals no
such spirit, and beyond the facts of Nature we are at the
present stage of our inquiry not supposing ourselves to look.
Now, I do not hesitate frankly and sincerely to confess to
you that this real and genuine discord seems to me to proclaim
the inevitable bankruptcy of natural religion naively and
simply taken. There were times when Leibnitzes with their
heads buried in monstrous wigs could compose Theodicies,
and when stall-fed officials of an established church could
prove by the valves in the heart and the round ligament of the
hip-joint the existence of a ” Moral and Intelligent Contriver
of the World.” But those times are past, and we of the nineteenth
century, with our evolutionary theories and our mechanical
philosophies, already know nature too impartially and too
well to worship unreservedly any god of whose character she
can be an adequate expression. Truly all we know of good
and beauty proceeds from nature, but none the less so all we
know of evil. Visible nature is all plasticity and indifference,
a multiverse, as one might call it, and not a universe. To
such a harlot we owe no moral allegiance; with her as a
whole we can establish no sentimental communion; and we
are free in our dealings with her several parts to obey or
destroy, and to follow no law but that of prudence in coming
to terms with such of her particular features as will help us to
our private ends. If there be a divine spirit of the universe,
nature, such as we know her, cannot possibly be its ultimate
word to man. Either there is no spirit revealed in nature, or
else it is inadequately revealed there; and (as all the higher
religions have assumed) what we call visible nature or this
world must be but a veil and surface-show whose full meaning
resides in a supplementary unseen or other world.
I cannot help, therefore, accounting it on the whole a gain
(though it may seem for certain poetic constitutions a very sad
loss) that the naturalistic superstition, the worship of the God
of nature simply taken as such, should have begun to loosen
its hold upon the educated mind. In fact, if I am to express
my personal opinion unreservedly, I should say (in spite of its
sounding blasphemous at first to certain ears) that the initial
step towards getting into healthy ultimate relations with the
universe is the act of rebellion against the idea that such a
God exists. Such rebellion essentially is that which in the
chapter quoted a while ago Carlyle goes on to describe:
” Wherefore, like a coward, dost thou forever pip and whimper, and go cowering
and trembling? Despicable biped! . . . Hast thou not a heart? Canst thou
Is Life Worth Living ? I I
not suffer whatso it be, and as a Child of Freedom, though outcast, trample Tophet
itself under thy feet, while it consumes thee? Let it come then; I will meet it
and defy it! And as I so thought there rushed like a stream of fire over my
whole soul; and I shook base Fear away from me forever. . . Thus had the
Everlasting No pealed authoritatively through all the recesses of my being, of
my ME; and then it was that my whole ME stood up, in native God-created
majesty, and recorded its protest. Such a protest, the most importantransaction
in Life, may that same indignation and defiance, in a psychological point of view,
be fitly called. The Everlasting No had said: ‘ Behold, thou art fatherless, outcast,
and the Universe is mine’ . . . to which my whole Me now made answer:
‘I am not thine, but Free, and forever hate thee!”‘ “From that hour,” Teufelsdrockh-Carlyle
adds, ” I began to be a Man.”
And our friend, poor James Thomson, similarly writes:
” Who is most wretched in this dolorous place ?
I think myself; yet I would rather be
My miserable self than He, than He
Who formed such creatures to His own disgrace.
The vilest thing must be less vile than Thou
From whom it had its being, God and Lord!
Creator of all woe and sin! abhorred,
Malignant and implacable! I vow
That not for all Thy power furled and unfurled,
For all the temples to Thy glory built,
Would I assume the ignominious guilt
Of having made such men in such a world.”
We are familiar enough in this community with the spectacle
of persons exulting in their emancipation from belief in
the God of their ancestral Calvinism, him who made the garden
and the serpent and pre-appointed the eternal fires of hell.
Some of them have found humaner Gods to worship, others
are simply converts from all theology; but both alike they
assure us that to have got rid of the sophistication of thinking
they could feel any reverence or duty towards that impossible
idol gave a tremendous happiness to their souls. Now, the
idol of a worshipful spirit of Nature also leads to sophistication;
and in souls that are religious and would also be scientific, the
sophistication breeds a philosophical melancholy from which
the first natural step of escape is the denial of the idol; and
with the downfall of the idol, whatever lack of positive joyousness
may remain, there comes also the downfall of the
I2 International -7ournal of Ethics.
whimpering and cowering mood. With evil simply taken as
such, men can make short work, for their relations with it
then are only practical. It looms up no longer so spectrally, it
loses all its haunting and perplexing significance as soon as the
mind attacks the instances of it singly and ceases to worry
about their derivation from the ” one and only” Power.
Here, then, on this stage of mere emancipation from monistic
superstition, the would-be suicide may already get encouraging
answers to his question about the worth of life. There are
in most men instinctive springs of vitality that respond healthily
when the burden of metaphysical and infinite responsibility
rolls off. The certainty that you now may step out of life
whenever you please, and that to do so is not blasphemous or
monstrous, is itself an immense relief. The thought of suicide
is now no longer a guilty challenge and obsession. “This
little life is all we must endure; the grave’s most holy peace
is ever sure,” says Thomson; adding, ” I ponder these thoughts,
and they comfort me.” Meanwhile we can always stand it
for twenty-four hours longer, if only to see what to-morrow’s
newspaper will contain or what the next postman will bring.
But far deeper forces than this mere vital curiosity are arousable,
even in the pessimistically-tending mind; for where the
loving and admiring impulses are dead, the hating and fighting
impulses will still respond to fit appeals. This evil which we
feel so deeply is something which we can also help to overthrow,
for its sources, now that no ” Substance” or ” Spirit” is
behind them, are finite, and we can deal with each of them in
turn. It is, indeed, a remarkable fact that sufferings and
hardships do not, as a rule, abate the love of life; they seem,
on the contrary, usually to give it a keener zest. The sovereign
source of melancholy is repletion. Need and struggle
are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what
brings the void. Not the Jews of the captivity, but those of
the days of Solomon’s glory are those from whom the pessimistic
utterances in our Bibles come. Germany, when she
lay trampled beneath the hoofs of Bonaparte’s troopers, produced
perhaps the most optimistic and idealistic literature that
the world has seen; and not till the French ” milliards” were
Is Life Worth Living? I13
distributed after i87i did pessimism overrun the country in
the shape in which we see it there to-day. The history of
our own race is one long commentary on the cheerfulness that
comes with fighting ills. Or take the Waldenses, of whom I
lately have been reading, as examples of what strong men will
endure. In I485, a papal bull of Innocent VIII. enjoined their
extermination. It absolved those who should take up the
cross against them from all ecclesiastical pains and penalties,
released them from any oath, legitimized their title to all property
which they might have illegally acquired, and promised
remission of sins to all who should kill the heretics.
” There is no town in Piedmont,” says a Vaudois writer, ” where some of our
brethren have not been put to death. Jordan Terbano was burnt alive at Susa;
Hippolite Rossiero at Turin; Michael Goneto, an octogenarian, at Sarcena; Villermin
Ambrosio hanged on the Col di Meano; Hugo Chiambs, of Fenestrelle,
had his entrails torn from his living body at Turin; Peter Geymarali of Bobbio
in like manner had his entrails taken out in Luzerne, and a fierce cat thrust in
their place to torture him further; Maria Romano was buried alive at Rocca
Patia; Magdalena Fauno underwent the same fate at San Giovanni; Susanna
Michelini was bound hand and foot and left to perish of cold and hunger on the
snow at Sarcena; Bartolomeo Fache, gashed with sabres, had the wounds filled
up with quicklime, and perished thus in agony at Fenile; Daniel Michelini had
his tongue torn out at Bobbo for having praised God; James Baridari perished
covered with sulphurous matches which had been forced into his flesh under the
nails, between the fingers, in the nostrils, in the lips, and all over the body and
then lighted; Daniel Rovelli had his mouth filled with gunpowder which, being
lighted, blew his head to pieces; . . . Sara Rostignol was slit open from the legs
to the bosom, and left so to perish on the road between Eyral and Luzerna; Anna
Charbonnier was impaled, and carried thus on a pike from San Giovanni to La
land dergleichen nehr ! In i630, the plague swept away onehalf
the Vaudois population, including fifteen of their seventeen
pastors. The places of these were supplied from Geneva
and Dauphiny, and the whole Vaudois people learned French
in order to follow their services. More than once their
number fell by unremitting persecution from the normal
standard of twenty-five thousand to about four thousand. In
i686, the Duke of Savoy ordered the three thousand that remained
to give up their faith or leave the country. Refusing,
they fought the French and Piedmontese armies till only
eighty of their fighting men remained alive or uncaptured,
I4 International journal of Ethics.
when they gave up and were sent in a body to Switzerland.
But in i689, encouraged by William of Orange and led by
one of their pastor-captains, between eight hundred and nine
hundred of them returned to capture their old homes again.
They fought their way to Bobi, reduced to four hundred men
in the first half year, and met every force sent against them
until at last the Duke of Savoy, giving up his alliance with
that abomination of desolation, Louis XIV., restored them to
comparative freedom. Since which time they have increased
and multiplied in their barren Alpine valleys to this day.
What are our woes and sufferance compared with these ?
Does not the recital of such a fight so obstinately waged
against such odds fill us with resolution against our petty
powers of darkness, machine politicians, spoilsmen, and the
rest ? Life is worth living, no matter what it bring, if only
such combats may be carried to successful terminations and
one’s heel set on the tyrant’s throat. To the suicide, then, in
his supposed world of multifarious and immoral Nature, you
can appeal, and appeal in the name of the very evils that make
his heart sick there, to wait and see his part of the battle out.
And the consent to live on, which you ask of him under these
circumstances, is not the sophistical ” resignation” which devotees
of cowering religions preach. It is not resignation in
the sense of licking a despotic deity’s hand. It is, on the
contrary, a resignation based on manliness and pride. So
long as your would-be suicide leaves an evil of his own unremedied,
so long he has strictly no concern with evil in the
abstract and at large. The submission which you demand of
yourself to the general fact of evil in the world, your apparent
acquiescence in it, is here nothing but the conviction that evil
at large is none of your business until your business with your
private particular evils is liquidated and settled up. A challenge
of this sort, with proper designation of detail, is one that
need only be made to be accepted by men whose normal instincts
are not decayed, and your reflective would-be suicide
may easily be moved by it to face life with a certain interest
again. The sentiment of honor is a very penetrating thing.
When you arid I, for instance, realize how many innocent beasts
Is L?e Worth Living? I 5
have had to suffer in cattle-cars and slaughter-pens and lay
down their lives that we might grow up, all fattened and clad,
to sit together here in comfort and carry on this discourse, it
does, indeed, put our relation to the Universe in a more solemn
light. “Does not,” as a young Amherst philosopher (Xenos
Clark, now dead) once wrote, ” the acceptance of a happy life
upon such terms involve a point of honor?” Are we not
bound to do some self-denying service with our lives in return
for all those lives upon which ours are built ? To hear this
question is to answer it in only one possible way, if one have
a normally constituted heart!
Thus, then, we see that mere instinctive curiosity, pugnacity,
and honor may make life on a purely naturalistic basis seem
worth living from day to day to men who have cast away all
metaphysics in order to get rid of hypochondria, but who
are resolved to owe nothing as yet to religion and its more
positive gifts. A poor half-way stage, some of you may be
inclined to say; but at least you must grant it to be an honest
stage; and no man should dare to speak meanly of these instincts
which are our nature’s best equipment, and to which
religion herself must in the last resort address her own peculiar
And now, in turning to what religion may have to say to
the question, I come to what is the soul of my discourse.
Religion has meant many things in human history, but when
from now onward I use the word I mean to use it in the supernaturalist
sense, as signifying that the so-called order of nature
that constitutes this world’s experience is only one portion of
the total Universe, and that there stretches beyond this visible
world an unseen world of which we now know nothing positive,
but in its relation to which the true significance of our
present mundane life consists. A man’s religious faith (whatever
more special items of doctrine it may involve) means for
me essentially his faith in the existence of an unseen order of
some kind in which the riddles of the natural order may be
found explained. In the more developed religions this world
has always been regarded as the mere
i6 International 7ournal of Ethics.
of a truer, more eternal world, and affirmed to be a sphere of
education, trial, or redemption. One must in some fashion
die to this world before one can enter into life eternal. The
notion that this physical world of wind and water, where the
sun rises and the moon sets, is absolutely and ultimately the
divinely aimed at and established thing, is one that we find
only in very early religions, such as that of the most primitive
Jews. It is this natural religion (primitive still in spite of the
fact that poets and men of science whose good-will exceeds
their perspicacity keep publishing it in new editions tuned to
our contemporary ears) that, as I said a while ago, has suffered
definitive bankruptcy in the opinion of a circle of persons,
amongst whom I must count myself, and who are growing
more numerous every day. For such persons the physical
order of Nature, taken simply as Science knows it, cannot be
held to reveal any one harmonious spiritual intent. It is mere
weather, as Chauncey Wright called it, doing and undoing
without end.
Now I wish to make you feel, if I can in the short remainder
of this hour, that we have a right to believe that the physical
order is only a partial order; we have a right to supplement it
by an unseen spiritual order which we assume on trust, if
only thereby life may seem to us better worth living again.
But as such a trust will seem to some of you sadly mystical
and execrably unscientific, I must first say a word or two to
weaken the veto which you may consider that Science opposes
to our act.
There is included in human nature an ingrained naturalism
and materialism of mind which can only admit facts that are
actually tangible. Of this sort of mind the entity called
” Science” is the idol. Fondness for the word ” scientist” is
one of the notes by which you may know its votaries; and its
short way of killing any opinion that it disbelieves in is to
call it “unscientific.” It must be granted that there is no
slight excuse for this. Science has made such glorious leaps
in the last three hundred years, and extended our knowledge
of Nature so enormously both in general and in detail; men
of science, moreover, have as a class displayed such admirable
Is Life Worth Living? I7
virtues, that it is no wonder if the worshippers of Science lose
their head. In this very University, accordingly, I have heard
more than one teacher say that all the fundamental conceptions
of truth have already been found by Science, and that
the future has only the details of the picture to fill in. But
the slightest reflection on the real conditions will suffice to
show how barbaric such notions are. They show such a lack
of scientific imagination, that it is hard to see how one who is
actively advancing any part of Science can make a mistake so
crude. Think how many absolutely new scientific conceptions
have arisen in our own generation, how many new problems
have been formulated that were never thought of before, and
then cast an eye upon the brevity of Science’s career. It began
with Galileo just three hundred years ago. Four thinkers
since Galileo, each informing his successor of what discoveries
his own lifetime had seen achieved, might have passed the
torch of Science into our hands as we sit here in this room.
Indeed, for the matter of that, an audience much smaller than
the present one, an audience of some sixty or seventy people,
if each person in it could speak for his own generation, would
carry us away to the black unknown of the human species, to
days without a document or monument to tell their tale. Is
it credible that such a mushroom knowledge, such a growth
overnight as this, can represent more than the minutest
glimpse of what the Universe will really prove to be when
adequately understood ? No! our Science is a drop, our
ignorance a sea. Whatever else be certain, this at least is
certain: that the world of our present natural knowledge is
enveloped in a larger world of some sort of whose residual
properties we at present can frame no positive idea.
Agnostic positivism, of course, admits this principle theoretically
in the most cordial terms, but insists that we must not
turn it to any practical use. We have no right, this doctrine
tells us, to dream dreams, or suppose anything about the unseen
part of the universe, merely because to do so may be for
what we are pleased to call our highest interests. We must
always wait for sensible evidence for our beliefs; and where
such evidence is inaccessible we must frame no hypotheses
VOL. VI.-No. i 2
I8 International 5Yournal of Ethics.
whatever. Of course this is a safe enough position in abstract.
If a thinker had no stake in the unknown, no vital needs, to
live or languish according to what the unseen world contained,
a philosophic neutrality and refusal to believe either
one way or the other would be his wisest cue. But, unfortunately,
neutrality is not only inwardly difficult, it is also outwardly
unrealizable, where our relations to an alternative are
practical and vital. This is because, as the psychologists tell
us, belief and doubt are living attitudes, and involve conduct
on our part. Our only way, for example, of doubting, or refusing
to believe, that a certain thing is, is continuing to act as
if it were not. If, for instance, we refuse to believe that the
room is getting cold, we must leave the windows open and
light no fire just as if it still were warm. If I refuse to
believe that you are unworthy of my confidence, Imust keep
telling you everything just as if you were worthy of the same.
And similarly if, as the agnostics tell me, I must not believe
that the world is divine, I can only express that refusal by
declining to act distinctively as if it were so, which can only
mean acting on certain critical occasions as if it were not so,
or unmorally and irreligiously. Not to be for, you see, is
often to be practically against; so that a strict and consistent
neutrality is really unattainable.
And after all, isn’t this duty of neutrality where only our
inner interests would lead us to believe, the most ridiculous
of commands ? Isn’t it sheer dogmatic folly to say that with
the forces that the hidden world may contain the mystical side
of our nature can have no real connection ? In other cases
divinations based on inner interests have proved prophetic
enough. Without an imperious inner demand on our part
for ideal, logical, and mathematical harmonies, Science herself
would never have attained to proving that such harmonies
lie hidden between all the chinks and interstices of the crude
natural world. Hardly a law has been established in Science,
hardly a fact ascertained, that was not first sought
after, often with sweat and blood, to gratify an inner need.
Whence such needs come from we do not know-we find
them in us, and biological psychology so far only classes
Is Life Worth Living? I9
them with Darwin’s “accidental variations” But the inner
need of believing that this world of Nature is a sign of something
more spiritual and eternal than itself is just as strong and
authoritative in those who feel it, as the inner need of uniform
laws of causation ever can be in a professionally scientific
head. The toil of many generations has proved the latter
need prophetic. Why may not the former one be prophetic,
too ? If needs of ours outrun the visible universe, why may
not that be a sign that an invisible universe is there ? What,
in short, is to debar us from trusting our religious demands ?
Science as such assuredly has no authority, for she can only
say what is, not what is not; and the agnostic “thou shalt
not believe without coercive sensible evidence” is simply an
expression (free to any one to make) of private personal appetite
for evidence of a particular kind.
Now, when I speak of trusting our religious demands, just
what do I mean by “trusting”? Is the word to carry with it
license to define in detail an invisible world and to anathematize
and excommunicate those whose trust is different ? Certainly
not! Our faculties of belief were not primarily given
us to make orthodoxies and heresies withal; they were given
us to live by. And to trust our religious demands means first
of all to live in the light of them, and to act as if the invisible
world which they suggest were real. It is a fact of human nature
that men can live and die by the help of a sort of faith that goes
without a single dogma or definition. The bare assurance that
this natural order is not ultimate but a mere sign or vision, the
external staging of a many-storied universe, in which spiritual
forces have the last word and are eternal; this bare assurance
is to such men enough to make life seem worth living in spite
of every contrary presumption suggested by its circumstances
on the natural plane. Destroy this inner assurance, vague as
it is, however, and all the light and radiance of existence is
extinguished for these persons at a stroke. Often enough the
wild-eyed look at life,-the suicidal mood will then set in.
And now the application comes directly home to you and
me. Probably to almost every one of us here the most
20 International journal of Ethics.
adverse life would seem well worth living if we only could be
certain that our bravery and patience with it were terminating
and eventuating and bearing fruit somewhere in an unseen
spiritual world. But granting we are not certain, does it then
follow that a bare trust in such a world is a fool’s paradise
and lubberland, or rather that it is a living attitude in which
we are free to indulge? Well, we are free to trust at our
own risks anything that is not impossible and that can bring
analogies to bear in its behalf. That the world of physics is
probably not absolute, all the converging multitude of arguments’
that make in favor of idealism tend to prove. And that
our whole physical life may lie soaking in a spiritual atmosphere,
a dimension of Being that we at present have no organ
for apprehending, is vividly suggested to us by the analogy of
the life of our domestic animals. Our dogs, for example, are
in our human life but not of it. They witness hourly the
outward body of events whose inner meaning cannot, by any
possible operation, be revealed to their intelligence, events in
which they themselves often play the cardinal part. -My terrier
bites a teasing boy, for example, and the father demands
damages. The dog may be present at every step of the negotiations,
and see the money paid without an inkling of what it
all means, without a suspicion that it has anything to do with
him. And he never can know in his natural dog’s life. Or
take another case which used greatly to impress me in my
medical-student days. Consider a poor dog whom they are
vivisecting in a laboratory. He lies strapped on a board and
shrieking at his executioners, and to his own dark consciousness
is literally in a sort of hell. He cannot see a single redeeming
ray in the whole business; and yet all these diabolical-seeming
events are usually controlled by human intentions
with which, if his poor benighted mind could only be made to
catch a glimpse of them, all that is heroic in him would religiously
acquiesce. Healing truth, relief to future sufferings of
beast and man are to be bought by them. It is genuinely
a process of redemption. Lying on his back on the board
there he is performing a function incalculably higher than any
prosperous canine life admits of; and yet, of the whole per-
Is Life Worth Living.? 21
formance, this function is the one portion that must remain
absolutely beyond his ken.
Now turn from this to the life of man. In the dog’s life
we see the world invisible to him because we live in both
worlds. In human life, although we only see our world, and
his within it, yet encompassing these worlds a still wider world
may be there unseen by us; and to believe in that world may
be the most essential function that our lives in this world have
to perform. But “may be! may be !” one hears the positivist
contemptuously exclaim; ” what use can a scientific life have
for maybes ?” But the ” scientific” life itself has much to do
with maybes, and human life at large has everything to do with
them. So far as man stands for anything, and is productive
or originative at all, his entire vital function may be said to be
to deal with maybes. Not a victory is gained, not a deed of
faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe; not a
service, not a sally of generosity, not a scientific exploration
or experiment or text-book, that may not be a mistake. It is
only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we
live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified
result is the only thing that makes the result come
true. Suppose, for instance, that you are climbing a mountain
and have worked yourself into a position from which the only
escape is by a terrible leap. Have faith that you can successfully
make it, and your feet are nerved to its accomplishment.
But mistrust yourself, and think of all the sweet things you
have heard the scientists say of maybes, and you will hesitate
so long that, at last, all unstrung and trembling, and launching
yourself in a moment of despair, you roll in the abyss. In
such a case (and it belongs to an enormous class), the part of
wisdom as well as of courage is to believe what is in the line of
your needs, for only by the belief is the need fulfilled. Refuse
to believe, and you shall indeed be right, for you shall irretrievably
perish. But believe, and again you shall be right,
for you shall save yourself. You make one or the other of
two possible universes true by your trust or mistrust, both
universes having been only maybes, in this particular, before
you contributed your act.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *