JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter XV.
Pessimism and Literature.

SCHOPENHAUER is the philosopher of Pessimism. Let us ask him his solution for the problem of reconciliation between the secular and religious elements of society. But first a word upon the Pessimism of the nineteenth century. Leibnitz was emphatically the philosopher of modern Optimism. He taught that all was for the best in this best of possible worlds. During the eighteenth century his Optimism prevailed among the writers and thinkers of Europe. It entered as a soothing element into the philosophy of superficial complacency then prevalent Shaftesbury and Bolingbroke basked in its sunshine. Pope, in his Essay on Man, feebly reproduced its main tenets. Hume picked flaws in it. Voltaire cleverly satirized certain aspects of it in his Candide. With the dawning of the nineteenth century a spirit of unrest and vague yearning hovered over sensitive natures. It was the throbbing of the new social upheaval. Châteaubriand was for a time under its influence -- during which he wrote René -- but he cast it off with the infidelity that threatened to blight his beautiful intellect. Byron inhaled its noxious vapors; they rendered him cynical and embittered toward the world, and inspired Cain and Manfred. Lamartine took the malady in a milder form; its presence may be detected in the melancholy tone pervading some of his sweetest poems. Heine felt the depth of human misery, and his muse sang the world-pain -- Der Weltschmerz -- but his moods were many and he could not long remain a Pessimist. Lenau, in his wandering and careless life, was deeply impressed with the vanity and the transitoriness of all things; their fleeting seemed part of himself.{1}

But the poet of Pessimism is Leopardi (1798-1837). A lifelong invalid, his body racked with pain, his soul ever stooping to drink of the waters of pleasure, and, Tantalus-like, ever finding them recede farther and farther beyond his reach, he came to look upon life as the greatest evil and death as the greatest good, and he sang the song of the world's desolation and unhappiness -- infelicità -- with the nerve and calm of confirmed despair. Life was to him something wretched and dreadful,{2} a burden which he dragged along with loud murmuring. "He everywhere saw lamentation, cruelty, cowardice, injustice, and weariness."{3} And the vision was to him a source of dreary delight. "I rejoice," he wrote to his bosom friend, Giordani, "to discover more and more, and to touch with my hands, the misery of men and things, and to be seized with a cold shudder as I search through the wretched and terrible secret of the life of the universe."{4} Life had for him no other worth than to hold it in scorn.{5}

Elsewhere he tells us "We are born to tears; happiness smiles not upon our lives; our afflictions make heaven rejoice."{6} In the poem in which, in a final groan of despair, he concentrated all the sorrow, all the agony, all the defiance of his unhappy life, he assures us that "on this obscure grain of sand called earth . . . nature has no more concern for man than she has for the worm."{7} Need we wonder that he should envy the dead? His Pessimism grew into his soul till it became part of himself. Patriotism, enthusiasm, aspirations for the good and the true in their highest and most ennobling sense, all came to a premature blight beneath the touch of scepticism, and his gifted soul stands out parched and arid as the barren sides of Vesuvius on which he was wont to gaze. His life and his writings form a complete contrast with the life and the writings of Manzoni. Each is perfect in his art; but where one strikes the note of morbidness and blank despair, the other is joyous, hopeful, and patriotic. And the cause of this difference? Within the breast of the author of I Promessi Sposi glowed the fire of religious faith; within the breast of the singer of La Ginestra that fire had become extinguished and was reduced to a cold burned cinder, such as underlay the broomshrub he sang.{8}

While Leopardi was chanting the song of Pessimism, Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was forging its philosophy. And what is his solution of the problem of evil? How does he reconcile the secular and religious elements of society? To begin with, Schopenhaucr is a rabid opponent of Hegelism. He denies the Hegelian Idea. He sees no growth or development towards a better or a best in this world; he considers it the worst possible world that could have existed, the domain of accident and error, into which man is born that he may live in misery and die the victim of a deceiving power that overrides all things and makes the individual miserable in the interests of the species. That power Schopenhauer calls Will. This is neither the infinite personal Will which we recognize as an attribute of God, nor the finite personal will of the human soul. In the philosophy of Schopenhauer there is place neither for the soul nor for God. Will he defines to be "the innermost nature, the kernel of every particular thing, and equally of the totality of existence. It appears in every blind force of nature; it manifests itself also in the deliberate action of man; and the great difference between these two is merely in the degree of the manifestation, not in the nature of what manifests itself."{9} This Will underlies all phenomena. It includes the operations of the material world as well as those of man's consciousness -- his hopes and fears, his loves and hates. In one sense it may be identified with the noumenon of Kant; in another it is more than the noumenon; or the Thing-in-itself.{10} It is the ultimate reality of all things, the bond of unity holding the universe together. It is the real source of all human action, personal and external motives being the special conditions for its various manifestations.{11} It works without end, and apparently without aim. Pain and misery follow its course. Pain is the positive state of life; pleasure is its negative state. The only real enjoyment in life is that derived from intellectual culture. All others, when analyzed -- and the philosopher enters into a searching analysis of each and every source of pleasure to man -- are found to be fleeting, unsatisfactory, and merely the absence of pain. This part of his system may be summed up in the words of Byron:

"Count o'er the joys thine hours have seen,
  Count o'er thy days from anguish free,
And know, whatever thou hast been,
  'Tis something better not to be."

What remedy is there for this state of things? How may the misery of man be best ameliorated? The supreme remedy, according to Schopenhauer, is for all men and women to lead a life of celibacy, and thus hasten the end of human misery. In the absence of this universal understanding, it is the duty of each individual to resist with the whole energy of his nature the tendencies and impulses of the tyrannical Will which is the source of all his sufferings. In order to render this resistance effective, he seeks an emancipation of the intellect from the dominion of the Will. This emancipation is brought about, in the first place, by the practice of virtue, and especially of charity and pity for suffering and misery; and secondly, by renouncing all the aims of life, and seeking self-control and resignation in the fastings and mortifications of asceticism. It is the remedy of Sakya-Mouni without the gentle spirit of Sakya to give it life. It is a seeking after Nirvana. This is a consummation to which the proud and selfish spirit of Schopenhauer was certainly unequal. "He has," says Amiel, "no sympathy, no humanity, no love."{12}

But why dwell upon this system in the broad daylight of the nineteenth century? Has it not been called "a philosophy of exception and transition?"{13} It is because the exception bids fair to become the rule. It takes no deep insight into European thought to detect its wide-spread influence. "The whole of the present generation," says Vaihinger, "is impregnated with the Schopenhauer mode of thinking."{14} Von Hartmann, while accepting the same Pessimistic views, undertook to reduce their solution to a still more scientific demonstration. He also asserts that creation is a mistake, the result of blind folly, and, therefore, that death is preferable to life, not-being to being. He recognizes a power pervading and unifying all nature and all history. He calls this power the Unconscious. It is instinctive, blind, and yet somehow it works with design. It is ever struggling from the lower to the higher forms of life, bringing with it increased capacity for pain according as it grows into consciousness. "It is an eternal pining -- Schmachten -- for fulfillment, and is thus absolute unblessedness, torment without pleasure, even without pause."{15} It is not to be confounded with human consciousness. The latter is subject to disease and exhaustion, is conditioned by material brain or nervous ganglia, and is liable to error. The Unconscious is above all conditions of space and time and matter, and is infallible in its actions. Man is apparently free, but his work is laid out for him and he is moved thereto by the Unconscious. The Unconscious is the organizer of all life. It moulds plant and animal each according to its kind. It determines the various forms of life rather than Darwin's principle of natural selection, which only accounts for physiological changes. The world was born of will and idea. Existence, Hartmann conceives to be created out of the embrace of the two super-existent principles, " the potency of existence deciding for existence," and "the purely existent." Now, "the potency of existence" is simply the Aristotelian and Scholastic "matter," and the "purely existent" is their "form." Hartmann is only repeating the time-honored idea that all things are the product of matter and form. Will, according to him, is the prime factor of human misery. But there is a scale in the capacity for suffering. The animal suffers less than man, the oyster less than the animal, and the unconscious plant less than all. Thus does suffering increase with the degree of intelligence. This has been formulated as follows: "Pain is an intellectual function, perfect in proportion to the development of the intelligence."{16}

The Unconscious is the guiding spirit of history. By means of the sexual impulse it founds the family. By means of the social instinct it founds the clan. By means of the instinct of "enmity of all to all," and the consequent struggle for existence, it consolidates the tribe and founds the nation. On, on it moves in its iron purpose through the ages. Individuals are sacrificed, peoples suffer, nations grow and decay and are blotted out from the face of the earth; but unheeding, unpitying, onward still it moves. It manages so that the right men are born at the right time, that the right work is done at the right moment, caring naught for the suffering and misery entailed in the process. Such, in a nutshell, is the system of Hartmann.

And what is his remedy against all this pain? Does he also seek refuge in the teachings of Gautama? No; the consummation that Schopenhauer conceives in an individual sense, Hartmann apprehends universally. He would destroy selfishness by recognizing the illusory nature of all endeavors after positive happiness. He speaks of a world-redemption to which all men should tend and in which all pain shall be annulled. Here alone -- "at the goal of evolution, at the issue of the world-process" -- is to be found a reconciliation between Optimism and Pessimism. This reconciliation may be brought about by making the ends of the Unconscious the ends of our own consciousness; by fostering a deep yearning for the peace and painlessness of non-existence till it becomes resistless as a practical motive; and finally, by making a simultaneous common resolve to hurl back the total actual volition into nothingness.{17} To this night-mare of a Cosmic suicide does Von Hartmann reduce his philosophic dreams. In such theories the meaning and purpose of life are completely lost sight of. No wonder Amiel should write: "Everything has chilled me this morning: the cold of the season, the physical immobility around me, but, above all, Hartmann's Philosophy of the Unconscious."{18}

A cold, cold study, cold and dreary, and chilling indeed, is this. And were Pessimism confined to a few abnormally sensitive natures, and within the covers of a few books, we might leave it untouched and dwell upon philosophic issues of more general interest. But Pessimism is spreading its baneful influence over every department of literature. It has its organs of opinion and expression throughout the world. It has found its way into the books of the hour. You read it in their exaggerations of the miseries of life. It places arguments in favor of suicide in the hands of the coward who lacks the courage to face life's difficulties. It is the inspiring doctrine of socialism and nihilism. The philosophy of despair, it finds no worth in life, for it recognizes life only as a quest after one knows not what, ending in disillusion and disappointment. Do you not find this view of life pervading many a volume in verse and prose that makes up some of the most artistic literature of the day? It is the inspiration of the philosophic poems of Madame Ackerman. It indited The City of Dreadful Night of Thomson. It traced El Diablo Mondo of Espronceda. Its spirit animates the strongest creations of Tourgéneff.{19} In Russia, there are fanatics who, under the cloak of religion, carry out the godless and prayerless asceticism of Schopenhauer.{20} Bitterness in thought and feeling, and cynicism and inanition are its legitimate fruits. It destroys the normal joyousness of the healthy soul. It is indeed a virulent malady. Thus has the rationalism of the day attempted to do away with God and religion. But men must have a formula into which they can translate their emotions. Religion has supplied that formula in prayer. Rationalism now appeals to science to supplant the religious formula, but science is unequal to the task.

Little good is to be looked for in a philosophy as purely subjective as Pessimism. "The world is my idea -- Vorstellung -- my intellectual perception. The world is my will." So reiterates Schopenhauer. And Hartmann tells us that there is no such thing as happiness, just as there are no such things as God and truth. All are subjective. Things are what we think them. Thus all thought, all science, the moral and material world, even God, in this system, are reduced to a mere act of consciousness. The philosophy that refuses to recognize object as well as subject as a primary element of thought is bound to end in just such a quagmire. The Pessimist's solution for the modern world-problem -- the reconciliation between the secular and the religious elements in society -- is the destruction of God, the soul, and all religion. He would make a waste and call it peace.

Another fundamental error underlying Pessimism is that it assumes pleasure to be the object of existence. Now, we are not in this world for the amount of pleasure it may bring us. Both Hartmann and Schopenhauer read in their master, Kant, a higher purpose. He taught them that morality is the chief aim of life; that man is here for the fulfillment of duty; that in this fulfillment is his supreme earthly happiness; that in the struggle to overcome himself he creates his own personality, and that sufferings and mishaps are so many stepping-stones by which man rises to the full growth and development of his nature. Kant might attempt to disprove the existence of God, but he could not destroy the moral purpose of life and the sense of duty in the human breast And in these planks saved from the general wreck created by the Critique of Pure Reason we have the wherewith to scale to heaven's threshold and demonstrate the existence of God. The Pessimist may reject but he cannot destroy these elementary truths. In their light existence has a totally different meaning, and we begin to realize how vastly before pleasure stands duty.

But bad as the world is in the eyes of our Pessimists, the world still retains this sense of obligation, be it ever so ignored by philosophy. The world cannot move without the moral code. Renan, even while denying its obligations, acknowledges its necessity. "Nature," he says, "has need of the virtue of individuals, but this virtue is an absurdity in itself; men are duped into it for the preservation of the race."{21} Surely if virtue is an absurdity into which men are duped, then indeed is there no obligation. Then is there no such thing as sin. This thought caused Amiel to ask: "What does M. Renan make of sin?" And M. Renan, with his characteristic flippancy, answers: "It seems to me that I suppress it."{22} If Renan is right, then he who rises up against this terrible illusion and seeks to destroy it -- be the consequences what they may -- is a true philosopher and deserves well of all men. If Renan is right and Schopenhauer is right, then all honor to Pessimism for rending the veil of delusion and revealing the reality. A simple remedy this of overcoming a difficulty, to suppress it, ignore it. As though the dishonest debtor could satisfy justice by destroying the record of his indebtedness, or the man who injured his neighbor by word or deed could repair the wrong by ignoring the injured neighbor!

Although the Pessimist in his speculations wanders so far away from our most elementary standard of truth and sense of right, still is he a keen observer and analyzer of men and things. He states facts even while misinterpreting the facts. And our safest method of refutation consists in separating theory from the facts and principles underlying the theory. If we would understand any system we must stand at its central point on a common ground with him who holds the system. It not unfrequently happens that the whole difference between two disputants consists in each giving a different name to the same thing. To begin with, then, there is in the whole animal creation -- man included -- a tendency that makes for the preservation of the race at the expense of the individual. There is a struggle for survival carried out along the whole scale of vital existence. We have seen this struggle reduced to a law in the doctrine of Evolution. There are in the human breast fierce passions which, when unleashed, play havoc with the individual and society. It is a natural tendency for man to lift his hand against his fellow-man in contention for supremacy. What other meaning have those immense armies now exhausting the energies and resources of Europe? So do the occupants of neighboring anthills wage war; they also have their tribe and race feuds; they fight their battles of extermination and subjugation. So far we are at one with the Pessimist. But here our roads diverge. Man with us is not all animal; he is also a rational being. Those tendencies and impulses which in the brute creation are a matter of accurately defined instinct, which guides them and measures their use, are in man subject to his reason. And the dictates of his reason are distinct from the promptings of his passions or his natural tendencies. St. Paul recognized and clearly defined these two tendencies in his nature, and he called each a law: "I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin, that is in my members."{23} It is this natural tendency and impulse that Schopenhauer calls Will and that Hartmann interprets as the Unconscious. Dark as is the Pessimist's picture of the world's misery, it is scarcely overdrawn. The physical suffering, the untold pangs of the wounded and the breaking heart, the groans of remorse, despair and wretchedness, the havoc of war and famine, disease and death -- all ascending at every moment from this revolving sphere of ours, in one agonizing wail of pain, is appalling. The Church recognizes this misery. She would have us consider ourselves as exiles passing through "a vale of tears."{24} In a variety of ways she repeats the words of Job: "Man born of a woman, living for a short time, is filled with many miseries. He cometh forth like a flower, and is destroyed, and fleeth as a shadow, and never continueth in the same state."{25} She insistently impresses upon us that we are not to look for happiness here below, for ours is a higher destiny. One who has faithfully interpreted, her mind says: "Thou canst not be satisfied with any temporal goods, because thou wast not created for the enjoyment of such things." The Church alone holds the clue to the miseries of life, she alone has the solution of the problem of evil. Mallock gave his graceful but not over-serious intellect to the study of this problem, and what was the outcome of his studies? "Religious belief," he tells us, "and moral belief likewise, involve both of them some vast mystery; and reason can do nothing but focalize, not solve it."{25} After questioning modern science, he finds himself forced to seek the only satisfactory solution in the teachings of the Church. Amiel, after wandering away from the Calvinism of his childhood loses himself in the mazes of German speculation; and after weighing all religious creeds, he finds nothing better than Christianity, for the reason that Christianity alone has a solution for the problem of evil. "Man must have a religion," he says; "is not the Christian the best, after all? -- the religion of sin, repentance, and reconciliation, of the new birth and the life everlasting."{27} To the Church, then, which alone contains the fullness of Christian truth, let us go for the solution of the problem of evil.

Recognizing the sin and the misery with which life is beset, the Church does not say with Sakya-Mouni: "The great evil is existence." On the contrary, she holds existence to be a boon, since it is a pure and gratuitous gift from a good God. The misery and the pain, though inseparable in the present order of things, are still mere accidents of existence. She accounts for their presence by the doctrine of original sin. The whole struggle going on in every human breast between reason and impulse is an effort to restore the equilibrium in human nature lost by original sin. In her teachings there is no room for the question, Is life worth living? Life is a state of probation. It is within the power of every man to make it a blessing or a curse. Man is born into this world without his consent; he lives within certain environments, over which he has no control; accidents befall him; he is circumvented in many ways; that which he most ardently seeks flies farthest from him; that which he least covets is what comes most readily into his possession. But the measure of man's success in life is not the mere attainment of his desires. This is a life-lesson as old as human nature, but none the less a lesson that human nature is frequently ignoring. Conduct and motive are the two elements that enter into the fullness of human life and make of it a success or a failure. He whose conduct is upright and whose motive is sincere has not lived in vain. His frame may be racked with pain and disease; adversities may befall him and friends forsake him; these things disturb not the calm of his soul; he turns them to account as aids to his spiritual growth. He knows that the be-all and end-all is not here. He recognizes a life above and beyond the plane of the natural, to which all men are destined and which all men can attain. This supernatural life is of the invisible world. We can neither touch, nor taste, nor see it, but it is none the less a reality. It is in us and about us. The light of faith reveals it to us in all its beauty and harmony and glory. Therein we read the meaning of the world, the plan and purpose of man. By prayer do we hold communion with this unseen world; by the sacraments does the Church communicate to us saving grace out of this unseen world, and by hope do we live to enter upon a new and a higher life in this unseen world.

{1} Es braust in meines Herzens wildem Takt, {2} Opere, 1. 59.

{3} Licurgo Cappelletti Poesie di Giacomo Leopardi, p. 38.

{4} Epistolario, i. 352.

{5} Nostra vita a che val? Sola a spregiarla. -- A un Vincitore nel Pallone, op. i. 57.

{6} Il Sogno, op. i. 84.

{7} La Ginestra.

{8} La Ginestra is the broom-shrub.

{9} Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, i. 13!.

{10} Ding an Sich.

{11} Sully Pessimism, p. 70.

{12} Journal Intime, 16th August, 1869.

{13} M. Caro: Revue des Deux Mondes, 1877, p, 514.

{14} See Ferdinand Laban: Die Schopenhauer-Literatur, Leipzig,

{15} Sully: Pessimism, p, 129.

{16} M. Charles Richet: La Douleur, Étude de Psychologie Physiologique. Revue Philosophique, Novembre, 1877, p. 469.

{17} Philosophie des Unbewussten, absch. C., cap. xiv. S. 401-407.

{18} Journal Intime, p. 162.

{19} Take, for instance the character of Bazároff in his Fathers and Children. "If," says a Russian critic, alluding to the spirit of this book, "Bazároffism be a malady, it is the malady of our days, so widely spread that . . . stay its progress we cannot, for it pervades the very air we breathe."

{20} Leroy-Beaulieu, in Revue des Deux Mondes, Juin, 1875, pp. 600-610.

{21} Dialogues Philosophiques, intro. xiv.-xvii.

{22} Eh bien, je crois que je le supprime. -- Journal Intime, intro. xi.

{23} Romans vii. 23.

{24} "Salve Regina."

{25} Job, xiv. Imitation, iii. xvi. x.

{26} Is Life worth Living? p. 269.

{27} Journal Intime. Amiel was born in Geneva in 1821 and died in 1881. He was a man of rare talents, but his friends were disappointed in the sterility of his life. The blight of scepticism was upon him and paralyzed all his efforts.

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