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CRITIQUE OF PESSIMISM AS TAUGHT BY VON HAETMANN.
DOES good, or evil, preponderate in the lot of man? Is the human world advancing to millennial peace, or tending to utter ruin? Or does it fluctuate between the two, alternately gaining and losing in certain fixed proportions, which no lapse of time, no social adjustments, and no cosmic revolutions can essentially change? Are Ormuzd and Ahriman so nearly matched that neither the one nor the other in endless ages shall acquire supreme and exclusive sway.
A question old as philosophy, and still awaiting its final solution, — a solution based on irrefragable proofs, and admitting of no appeal. My aim at present is not to establish a thesis on the subject, but to criticise the position of those who maintain the doctrine of an ever-growing ascendency of evil in human life.
Chief among these at present is Eduard von Hartmann, the last representative of the great transcendental movement which dates with Kant. Following in the track of Schopenhauer, with less originality, but finer perceptions and superior dialectic, Von Hartmann devotes a portion of his " Philosophy of the Unconscious" to the consideration of the question whether life is a blessing; whether existence or non-existence were most to be desired. After long debate and a wide review of the subject, he concludes that non-existence is preferable, since the misery of life in every form is greatly in excess of its happiness. And this, he thinks, would be the universal judgment, were it not for certain illusions which cast their glamour on the mind, and encourage the belief that life is a good to be desired. Three stages of illusion he conceives to be the source of this deplorable fallacy.
The first stage is that in which happiness is viewed as something which has been attained in this present world, and is therefore attainable still within the limits of the present life. The second stage is that in which happiness is believed to be reserved for some future transmundane state. The third is that in which happiness is expected to ensue from the consummation of the world's progressive development.
Under the first head our philosopher passes in review all the satisfactions and goods of life,— health, competence, honor, power, family joys, science, art, religion. Each of these is subjected to a rigorous scrutiny: its yield of pleasure is balanced against its inevitable sequence of pain; and in each case the result is a minus, depressing the value of life below the zero of indifference, and proving that, on the whole, it is a misfortune to be.
There is nothing original in this conclusion. Voices many and weighty, ancient and modern, affirm the same. "Wherefore I praised the dead," says Ecclesiastes, "more than the living. Yea, better than both is he that hath not been." Says Socrates, — or Plato speaking in his name, —" Let a man compare all the other days and nights of his life with some night in which he slept without a dream: how few will he find that were passed so pleasantly as that!" Sophocles makes the chorus in "(Edipus at Colonus" say: "Not to be is the supreme word; the next best is that, having been born, a man should depart as quickly as possible thither whence he come." Byron repeats the sentiment in that verse of despair,—
"Count o'er thy days from anguish free,
D'Alembert speaks of the " malheur d'etre." Voltaire gives it as the result of eighty years' experience, that suffering is the end of life. Hamlet thinks that only the dread of something after death can restrain the suicidal hand.
To these and similar utterances the answer is plain. They are criticisms, reflections on life; and not the spontaneous verdict of life itself, the verdict which a healthy nature pronounces on life as it passes. I oppose to them the testimony of competent witnesses; I cite expressions of abounding joy in being. This from Emerson, yet unknown to fame, with scant means and a doubtful future: "Almost I fear to think how glad I am. Give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous."
This from Charles Lamb, who had had his full share of mortal woe: —
"I am in love with this green earth, the face of town and country, the unspeakable rural solitudes, and the sweet security of streets. I would set up my tabernacle here. Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and fireside conversations, and innocent vanities and jests."
English literature has no soberer poet than Wordsworth, — a man whose temperament inclined to melancholy; but what a witness to the value of life who knew
"that Nature never did betray
The mind that is within us, so impress
All this the pessimist pronounces a delusion. Be it so. All reality, so far as the individual is concerned, is subjective. The value of life for me is what I find in it. If it yields to my consciousness a preponderance of good, I am justified in my optimism. We may be deceived as to the ground of our joy in life, but the joy itself is no delusion. I concede to the pessimist that pleasure is superficial. Enjoyment plays on the surface of life. Disturb that surface, mar it at any point, and straightway the underlying pain obtrudes. And by what insignificant trifles the surface-joy is disturbed! In the midst of a happy day let the smallest, scarcely discernible mote lodge itself in the eye, let the nerve of a tooth be exposed, and immediately the day is " o'ercast," enjoyment turns to pain. I concede to the pessimist that the substance of life is labor and hardness ; joy is but the sheen which in normal states it assumes in our consciousness. But observe that life by a law of its own takes on that sheen. Call it delusion, it is never