THE PHILOSOPHY OF DESPAIR
THE PHILOSOPHY OF DESPAIR
DAVID STARR JORDAN
The Bubbles of S?ki.
From Fitzgerald's exquisite version of the Rub?iy?t of Omar Khayy?m I
take the following quatrains which may serve as a text for what I have
So when the angel of the darker Drink
At last shall find you by the river-brink
And offering you his cup invite your Soul
Forth to your lips to quaff you shall not shrink.
Why if the soul can fling the Dust aside
And naked on the air of Heaven ride
Wert not a shame - wert not a shame for him
In this clay carcase crippled to abide?
'Tis but a tent where takes his one-day's rest
A Sultan to the realm of Death addrest;
The Sultan rises and the dark Ferr?sh
Strikes and prepares it for another guest.
And fear not lest Existence closing your
Account and mine shall know the like no more;
The Eternal S?ki from that bowl hath pour'd
Millions of bubbles like us and will pour.
When you and I behind the veil are past
Oh but the long long while the world shall last
Which of our coming and departure heeds
As the Sev'n Seas shall heed a pebble-cast.
A moment's halt - a momentary taste
Of Being from the Well amid the waste
And lo! - the phantom caravan has reach'd
The Nothing it set out from - O make haste!
* * *
There was the door to which I found no key;
There was the veil through which I could not see:
Some little talk awhile of Me and Thee
There was - and then no more of Thee and Me.
* * *
Why all the Saints and Sages who discuss'd
Of the two worlds so learnedly are thrust
Like foolish prophets forth; their words to scorn
Are scatter'd and their mouths are stopt with dust.
With them the seed of wisdom did I sow
And with my own hand wrought to make it grow
And this was all the harvest that I reap'd -
"I come like water and like wind I go."
* * *
Ah Love could thou and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry scheme of Things entire
Would we not shatter it to bits - and then
Re-mould it nearer to the heart's desire!
Yon rising Moon that looks for us again -
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same garden - and for one in vain!
And when like her O S?ki you shall pass
Among the guests star-scattered on the grass
And in your blissful errand reach the spot
Where I made one - turn down an empty glass!
* * *
And again in another poem from Carmen Silva's Roumanian folk-songs:
Into the mist I gazed and fear came on me
Then said the mist: "I weep for the lost sun."
We sat beneath our tent;
Then he that hath no hope drew near us there
And sat him down by us.
We asked him: "Hast thou seen the plains the mountains?"
And he made answer: "I have seen them all."
And then his cloak he showed us and his shirt
Torn was the shirt there close above the heart
Pierced was the breast there close above the heart -
The heart was gone.
And yet he trembled not the while we looked
And sought the heart the heart that was not there.
He let us look. And he that had no hope
Smiled that we grew so pale and sang us songs.
Then we did envy him that he could sing
Without a heart to suffer what he sang.
And when he went he cast his cloak about him
And those that met him they could never guess
How that his shirt was torn about the heart
And that his breast was pierced above the heart
And that the heart was gone.
I gazed into the mist and fear came on me
Then said the mist: "I weep for the lost sun."
This poem of Omar and of Fitzgerald is perhaps our best expression of
the sadness and the grandeur of insoluble problems. It is the sweetness
of philosophical sorrow which has no kinship with misery or distress. In
the strains of the saddest music the soul finds the keenest delight. The
same sweet sorrowful pleasure is felt in the play of the mind about the
riddles which it cannot solve.
In the presence of the infinite problem of life the voice of Science is
dumb for Science is the co?rdinate and corrected expression of human
experience and human experience must stop with the limitations of human
life. Man was not present "When the foundations of the Earth were laid"
and beyond the certainty that they were laid in wisdom and power man
can say little about them. Man finds in the economy of nature "no trace
of a beginning; no prospect of an end!" He may feel sure with Hutton
that "time is as long as space is wide." But he cannot conceive of space
as actually without limit nor can he imagine any limiting conditions.
He cannot think of a period before time began nor of a state in which
time shall be no more. The mind fails before the idea of time's eternal
continuity. So time becomes to man merely the sequence of the earthly
events in which he and his ancestors have taken part. Even thus limited
it is sadly immortal while man's stay on the earth is but of "few days
and full of trouble." "Oh but the long long while this world shall
last!" or as the grim humorist puts it "we shall be a long time dead."
Though the meaning of time space existence lies beyond our reach yet
some sort of solution of the infinite problem the human heart demands.
We find in life a power for action limited though this power may be.
Life is action and action is impossible if devoid of motive or hope.
It is my purpose here to indicate some part of the answer of Science to
the Philosophy of Despair. Direct reply Science has none. We cannot
argue against a singer or a poet. The poet sings of what he feels but
Science speaks only of what we know. We feel infinity but we cannot
know it for to the highest human wisdom the ultimate truths of the
universe are no nearer than to the child. Science knows no ultimate
truths. These are beyond the reach of man and all that man knows must
be stated in terms of his experience. But as to human experience and
conduct Science has a word to say.
Therefore Science can speak of the causes and results of Pessimism. It
can touch the practical side of the riddle of life by asking certain
questions the answers to which lie within the province of human
experience. Among these are the following:
Why is there a "Philosophy of Despair?"
Can Despair be wrought into healthful life?
In what part of the Universe are you and what are you doing?
Personal despair or discouragement may rise from failure of strength or
failure of plans. This is a matter of every-day occurrence. The "best
laid schemes o' mice and men " generally go wrong no doubt but this
fact has little to do with the Philosophy of Pessimism. It is natural
for mice and men to try again and to gain wisdom from failures. By the
embers of loss we count our gains."
The Pessimism of Youth we may first consider: In the transition from
childhood to manhood great changes take place in the nervous system.
There is for a time a period of confusion in which the nerve cells are
acquiring new powers and new relations. This is followed by a time of
joy and exuberance a sense of a new life in a new world a feeling of
new power and adequacy the thought that life is richer and better worth
living than the child could have supposed.
To this in turn comes a feeling of reaction. The joys of life have been
a thousand times felt before they come to us. We are but following part
of a cut-and-dried program "performing actions and reciting speeches
made up for us centuries before we were born." The new power of manhood
and womanhood which seemed so wonderful find their close limitations. As
our own part in the Universe seems to shrink as we take our place in it
so does the Universe itself seem to grow small hard and unsympathetic.
Very few young men or young women of strength and feeling fail to pass
through a period of Pessimism. With some it is merely an affectation
caught from the cheap literature of decadence. It then may find
expression in imitation as a few years ago the sad-hearted youth turned
down his collar in sympathy with the "conspicuous loneliness" that took
the starch out of the collar of Byron. "The youth" says Zangwill
says bitter things about Life which Life would have winced to hear had
it been alive." With others Pessimism has deeper roots and finds its
expression in the poetry or philosophy of real despair.
This adolescent Pessimism cannot be wrought into action. The mood
disappears when real action is demanded. The Pessimism of youth vanishes
with the coming of life. Through the rush of the new century the fad of
the drooping spirit has already given way to the fad of the strenuous
life. Equally unreasoning it may be but far more wholesome.
But if action is impossible the mood remains. And here arises the
despair of the highly educated. The purpose of knowledge is action. But
to refuse action is to secure time for the acquisition of more
knowledge. It is written in the very structure of the brain that each
impression of the senses must bring with it the impulse to act. To
resist this impulse is in turn to destroy it and to substitute a dull
soul-ache in its place. "Much study is a weariness of the flesh and the
experience of all the ages brings only despair if it cannot be wrought
into life. This lack of balance between knowledge and achievement is the
main element in a form of ineffectiveness which with various others has
been uncritically called Degeneration. As the common pleasures which
arise from active life become impossible or distasteful the desire for
more intense and novel joys comes in and with the goading of the thirst
for these comes ever deeper discouragement.
At the best the tendency of large knowledge not vitalized by practical
experience is to spend itself in cynical criticism in futile efforts
to tear down without feeling the higher obligation to build up. For it
is the essence of this form of Pessimism to feel that there is nothing
on earth worth the trouble of building. The real is only a "sneering
comment" on the ideal and man's life is too short to make any action
"With her the seed of Wisdom did I sow
And with mine own hands wrought to make it grow;
And this is all the harvest that I reap'd
'I come like water and like wind I go.'"
One of the few things that we may know in life is this that it is
impossible for man to know anything absolutely. The power of reasoning
is a mere "by-product in the process of Evolution." It is but an
instrument to help out the confusion of the senses and it is
conditioned by the accuracy of the sense-perceptions with which it
deals. There is no appeal from experience to reason for reason is
powerless to act save on the facts of human experience. Speculative
philosophy can teach us nothing. The senses and the reason are intensely
practical and all our faculties are primarily adapted to immediate
purposes. Instruments such as these cannot serve to probe the nature of
the infinite. But no other instruments lie within reach of man. If we
cannot "reach the heart of reality" by reason what indeed can we reach?
What right have we to know or to believe? And if we can know or believe
nothing what should we try to do? And how indeed can we do anything?
Every man's fate is determined by his heredity and his environment. In
the Arab proverb he is born with his fate bound to his neck. In the
course of life we must do that which has been already cut out for us.
Our parts were laid for us long before we appeared to take them. He is
indeed a strong man who can vary the cast or give a different cue to
those who follow. Nature is no respecter of persons and to suppose that
any man is in any degree "the arbiter of his own destiny" is pure
illusion. We are thrust forth into life against our will. Against our
will we are forced to leave it. We find ourselves as has been said "on
a steep incline where we can veer but little to the left or right";
whichever way we move we fall finally to the very bottom. The fires we
kindle die away in coals; castles we build vanish before our eyes. The
river sinks in the sands of the desert. The character we form by our
efforts disintegrates in spite of our effort. If life be spared we find
ourselves once again helpless children. Whichever way we turn we may
describe the course of life in metaphors of discouragement.
To the pessimistic philosopher the progress of the race is also mere
illusion. There is no progress only adaptation. Every creature must fit
itself to its environment or pass away. The beast fits the forest for
the same reason that the river fits its bed. Life is only possible under
the rare conditions in which life is not destroyed.
In such fashion we may ring the changes of the despair of philosophy. If
we are to take up the threads of life by the farther end only we shall
never begin to live for only those which lie next us can ever be in our
hand. To grasp at ultimate truth is to be forever empty-handed. To reach
for the ultimate end of action is never to begin to act.
Deeper and more worthy of respect is the sadness of science. The effort
"to see things as they really are" to get out of all make-believe and
to secure that "absolute veracity of thought" without which sound action
is impossible does not always lead to hopefulness.
There is much to discourage in human history - in the facts of human
life. The common man after all the ages is still very common. He is
ignorant reckless unjust selfish easily misled. All public affairs
bear the stamp of his weakness. Especially is this shown in the
prevalence of destructive strife. The boasted progress of civilization
is dissolved in the barbarism of war. Whether glory or conquest or
commercial greed be war's purpose the ultimate result of war is death.
Its essential feature is the slaughter of the young the brave the
ambitious the hopeful leaving the weak the sickly the discouraged to
perpetuate the race. Thus all militant nations become decadent ones.
Thus the glory of Rome her conquests and her splendor of achievement
left the Romans at home a nation of cowards and such they are to this
day. For those who survive are not the sons of the Romans but of the
slaves scullions the idlers and camp-followers whom the years of Roman
glory could not use and did not destroy. War blasts and withers all that
is worthy in the works of man.
That there seems no way out of this is the cause of the sullen despair
of so many scholars of Continental Europe. The millennium is not in
sight. It is farther away than fifty years ago. The future is narrowing
down and men do not care to forecast it. It is enough to grasp what we
may of the present. We hear "the ring of the hammer on the scaffold."
"Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die." "The sad kings" in
Watson's phrase can only pile up fuel for their own destruction and
the failure of force will release the unholy brood which force has
caused to develop. The winds of freedom are tainted by sulphurous
exhalations. In all our merry-making we find with Ibsen that "there is a
corpse on board." The mask is falling only to show the Death's head
there concealed. Aristocracy Democracy Anarchy Empire the history of
politics is the eternal round of the Dance of Death.
When we look at human nature in detail we find more of animal than of
angel and the "veracity of thought and action" which is the choicest
gift of Science is lost in the happy-go-lucky movement of the human
mob. "To see things as they really are" is the purpose of the philosophy
of Pessimism in the hands of its worthiest exponents. But we know what
is and that alone even were such knowledge possible is not to know
the truth. The higher wisdom seeks to find the forces at work to produce
that which now is. The present time is the meeting time of forces; the
present fact their temporary product. To the philosophy of Evolution
"every meanest day is the conflux of two eternities." Each meanest fact
is the product of the world-forces that lie behind it; each meanest man
the resultant of the vast powers alive in human nature struggling
since life began. And these forces omnipotent and eternal will never
cease their work.
To the philosophy of Pessimism the child is a mere human larva weak
perverse disagreeable the heir of mortality with all manner of
"defects of doubt and taints of blood" gathered in the long experience
of its wretched parentage.
In the more hopeful view of Evolution the child exists for its
possibilities. The huge forces within have thrown it to the surface of
time. They will push it onward to development which may not be much in
the individual case but beyond it all lie the possibilities of its
race. Inherent in it is the power to rise to form its own environment
to stand at last superior to the blind forces by which the human will
was made. With this thought is sure to come in some degree the
certainty that the heart of the Universe is sound that though there be
so many of us in the world each must have his place and each at last
"be somehow needful to infinity." We can see that each least creature
has its need for being. The present justifies the past. It is the
transcendent future which renders the commonplace present possible.
The "dragons of the prime
That tore each other in the slime"
lived and fought that we their descendants may realize ourselves in
"lives made beautiful and sweet" through all unlikeness to dragons. It
was necessary that every foot of soil in Europe should be crimsoned by
blood wantonly shed to bring the relative peace and tolerance of the
civilization of Europe today. It always "needs that offense must come"
to bring about the better condition in which each particular offense
shall be done away. For the evolution of life is not in straight lines
from lower to higher things but runs rather in wavering spirals. It is
the resultant of stress and storm. The evil and failure which darken the
present are necessary to the illumination of the future. Time is long.
"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
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.