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ALL the writers on Pessimism dwell on the strangeness of the fact that a century like our own, so marked by mental and material progress, by vigour and enterprise, should witness a revival of this gospel of despair; and bear emphatic testimony to the breadth and depth of the influence which the pessimistic systems are exercising. Apart, however, from the definite acceptance of Pessimism as a creed, it is instructive to note the many indications which literature affords of the sad and hopeless spirit which seems the necessary outcome of the surrender of religious faith. A few illustrations of this Pessimism of scepticism, culled almost at random, will perhaps not be out of place.

Voltaire was not happy. Dr. Cairns writes regarding him: “How little he himself was contented with his own results appears in the gloom shed over his later writings. It is not in Candide alone, but in others of them that this sadness comes to light. Thus, in his dialogue, ‘Les Louanges de Dieu,’ the doubter almost carries it over the adorer—’strike out a few sages, and the crowd of human beings is nothing but a horrible assemblage of unfortunate criminals, and the globe contains nothing but corpses. I tremble to have to complain once more of the Being of beings, in casting an attentive eye over this terrible picture. I wish I had never been born.’ . . . Thus the last utterance of Voltaire’s system is a groan.”104104Cairns’s Unbelief in the Eighteenth Century, p. 141.

A deep pessimism lurked in the background of the genial optimism of Goethe. Thus he expresses himself in conversation with Eckermann: “I have ever been esteemed one of fortune’s chiefest favourites; nor will I complain or find fault with the course my life has taken. Yet truly there has been 67nothing but toil and care; and I may say that in all my seventy-five years I have never had a month of genuine comfort. It has been the perpetual rolling of a stone which I have always had to raise anew.” His views of the future of the race were not hopeful. “Men will become more clever and more acute, but not better, happier, and stronger in action, or at least only at epochs. I foresee the time when God will have no more joy in them, but will break up everything for a renewed creation.”105105Eckermann’s Conversations of Gothe, pp. 58, 345 (Eng. trans.). Cf. Lichtenberger’s German Thought in the Nineteenth Century, p. 269 (Eng. trans.); Martensen’s Christian Ethics, pp. 172, 173: and Art. “Neo-Paganism,” in Quarterly Review, April 1891. There are numerous such utterances.

Renan writes in the preface to his recently published work, The Future of Science, originally composed in the years 1848–49—“To sum up: if, through the constant labour of the nineteenth century, the knowledge of facts has considerably increased, the destiny of mankind has, on the other hand, become more obscure than ever. The serious thing is that we fail to perceive a means of providing humanity in the future with a catechism that will be acceptable henceforth, except on the condition of returning to a state of credulity. Hence it is possible that the ruin of idealistic beliefs may be fated to follow hard upon the ruin of supernatural beliefs, and that the real abasement of the morality of humanity will date from the day it has seen the reality of things. . . . Candidly speaking, I fail to see how, without the ancient dreams, the foundations of a happy and noble life are to be relaid.”106106L’Avenir de la Science, Preface (Eng trans.). Elsewhere Renan has said, “Were living on the perfume of an empty vase.”

The late Professor Clifford is quoted as saying: “It cannot be doubted that the theistic belief is a comfort to those who hold it, and that the loss of it is a very painful loss. It cannot be doubted, at least by many of us in this generation, who either profess it now, or have received it in our childhood, and have parted from it since with such searching trouble as only cradle-faiths can cause. We have seen the spring sun shine out of an empty heaven to light up a soulless earth; we have felt with utter loneliness that the Great Companion is dead.”107107Quoted in Harris’s Self-Revelation of God, p. 404.

Professor Seeley, in the close of his work on Natural Religion, thus sums up: “When the supernatural does not come in to 68overwhelm the natural, and turn life upside down, when it is admitted that religion deals in the first instance with the known and natural, then we may well begin to doubt whether the known and the natural can suffice for human life. No sooner do we try to think so than Pessimism raises its head. The more our thoughts widen and deepen, as the universe grows upon us and we become accustomed to boundless space and time, the more petrifying is the contrast of our own insignificance, the more contemptible become the pettiness, shortness, and fragility of the individual life. A moral paralysis creeps over us. For a while we comfort ourselves with the notion of self-sacrifice; we say, What matter if I pass, let me think of others! But the other has become contemptible no less than the self; all human griefs alike seem little worth assuaging, hum an happiness too paltry at the best to be worth increasing. . . . The affections die away in a world where everything great and enduring is cold; they die of their own conscious feebleness and bootlessness.”108108Natural Religion, pp. 261, 262.

Of similar purport is a passage often quoted from A Candid Examination of Theism, by “Physicus.” “Forasmuch,” this writer says, “as I am far from being able to agree with those who affirm that the twilight doctrine of ‘the new faith’ is a desirable substitute for the waning splendour of ‘the old,’ I am not ashamed to confess that, with this virtual negation of God, the universe to me has lost its soul of loveliness; and although from henceforth the precept ‘to work while it is day’ will doubtless but gain an intensified force from the terribly intensified meaning of the words, ‘The night cometh when no man can work,’ yet, when at times I think, as think at times I must, of the appalling contrast between the hallowed glory of that creed which once was mine, and the lonely mystery of existence as I new find it, at such times I shall ever feel it impossible to avoid the sharpest pang of which my nature is susceptible. For, whether it be due to my intelligence not being sufficiently advanced to meet the requirements of the age, or whether it be duo to the memory of those sacred associations which, to me at least, were the sweetest that life has given, l cannot but feel that for me, and for others who think as I do, there is a dreadful truth in those words of Hamilton,— 69philosophy having become a meditation, not merely of death, but of annihilation, the precept know thyself has become transformed into the terrible oracle to Œdipus, ‘Mayest thou never know the truth of what thou art.’”109109P. 114. It is now known that “Physicus” was the late Professor Romanes, whose happy return to the Christian faith before his death has since been announced. See his Thoughts on Religion, edited by Canon Gore.

Theodore Jouffory, the French philosopher, wrote: “Never shall I forget the December evening when the veil which hid my unbelief from mine own eyes was torn away. . . . The hours of the night glided away, and I perceived it not; I anxiously followed my thought, which descended step by step to the bottom of my consciousness, and dissipating, one after another, all the illusions which till then had hid them from my view, rendered its subterfuges more and more visible to me. In vain I clung to my last beliefs, as a shipwrecked sailor to the fragments of his ship; in vain, terrified by the unknown waste in which I was about to float, I threw myself back once more upon my childhood, my family, my country, all that was dear and sacred to me; the inflexible current of my thought was the stronger; parents, family, memories, beliefs—it forced me to leave all. This examination became more obstinate and more severe as it approached the end; nor did it stop till the end was reached. I knew then that at the bottom of myself there was nothing left standing, that all I had believed about myself, about God, and about my destiny in this life and in that to come, I now believed no more. This moment was frightful; and when, towards morning, I threw myself exhausted upon my bed, it seemed to me as if I could feel my former life, so cheerful and complete, die away, and before me there opened up another life, dark and dispeopled, where henceforth I was to live alone, alone with my fatal thought which had just exiled me thither, and which I was tempted to curse.”110110Les Nouveaux Melanges Philosophiques, by Theodore Jouffory, pp. 112–115 (cf. Naville’s “Christ,” p. 16).

Here is Professor Huxley’s estimate of human progress: “I know,” he says, “no study which is so unutterably saddening as that of the evolution of humanity, as it is set forth in the annals of history. Out of the darkness of prehistoric ages man emerges with the marks of his lowly origin strong upon him. 70He is a brute, only more intelligent than the other brutes; a blind prey to impulses which as often as not lead him to destruction; a victim to endless illusions, which make his mental existence a terror and a burden, and fill his physical life with barren toil and battle. He attains a certain degree of physical comfort, and develops a more or less workable theory of life, in such favourable situations as the plains of Mesopotamia or of Egypt, and then, for thousands and thousands of years, struggles with varying fortunes, attended by infinite wickedness, bloodshed, and misery, to maintain himself at this point against the greed and ambition of his fellow-men. He makes a point of killing and otherwise persecuting all those who first try to get him to move on; and when he has moved on a step foolishly confers post-mortem deification on his victims. He exactly repeats the process with all who want to move a step yet further. And the best men of the best epochs are simply those who make the fewest blunders, and commit the fewest sins.”111111“Agnosticism,” by Professor Huxley, in Nineteenth Century, Feb. 1889, pp. 191, 192. Mr. Mallock, in his Is Life Worth Living? (pp. 128, 171, 172), quotes other striking sentences of Professor Huxley’s. “The lover of moral beauty,” he says, “struggling through a world of sorrow and sin, is surely as much the stronger for believing that sooner or later a vision of perfect peace and goodness will burst upon him, as the toiler up a mountain for the belief that beyond crag and snow lie home and rest.” And he adds that, could a faith like this be placed on a firm basis, mankind would cling to it as “tenaciously as ever drowning sailor did to a hencoop.” The passage is in protest against the Positivist “worship of Humanity.”

In further illustration of the Pessimism of scepticism, I may refer to two instructive magazine articles—one by Emile de Laveleye on “The Future of Religion,” in The Contemporary Review for July 1888; and the other by Mr. F. W. H. Myers on “The Disenchantment of France,” in The Nineteenth Century for May 1888. To quote only a sentence or two, M. Laveleye remarks: “It seems as if humanity could not exist without religion as a spiritual atmosphere, and we see that, as this decreases, despair and Pessimism take hold of minds thus deprived of solace. Madame Ackermann well expresses this in some lines addressed to Faith, in which she writes—

’Eh bien, nous l’expulsons de tes divins
roysumes, Dominatrice ardente, et l’instant
est venu; Tu ne vas plus savoir ou loger tes
fantomes, Nous fermons l’Inconnu!


Mais ton triumphateur expiera ta defaite,
L’homme deja se trouble et, vainqueur
eperdu, Il se sent ruine par sa propre
conquete; En te despossedant nous avons
tout perdu. Nous restons sans espoir, sans
recours, sans asile, Tandis qu’ obstinement
le desir qu’on exile Revient errer autour du
gouffre defendu.’

“Incurable sadness takes hold of the man who has no hope of anything better than this life, short as it is, and overwhelmed with trials of all kinds, where iniquity triumphs if it have but force on its side, and where men risk their lives in disputes with each other for a place where there is too little space for all, and the means of subsistence are wholly insufficient. Some German colonies have been founded in America, in which all sorts of Divine worship are prescribed; those who have visited them describe the colonists, the women especially, as appearing exceedingly sad. Life with no hope in the future loses its savour.”112112Contemporary Review, vol. xiv. p. 6. A large number of illustrations from French poetry may be seen in Caro’s Problemes de Morale Sociale, pp. 351–380. Cf. also the article next referred to on “The Disenchantment of France.”

Mr. Myers’s article on the progress of disillusionment in France, “to use the phrase of commonest recurrence in modern French literature and speech,” is one fitted to open many eyes as to the inevitable drift of unbelief to Pessimism. In 1788 France possessed illusions and nothing else,—“the reign of reason, the return to nature, the social contract, liberty, equality, fraternity,—the whole air of that wild time buzzed with new-hatched chimeras”; in 1888 France possesses everything except illusions; and the end is “the vague but general sense of malaise or decadence, which permeates so much of modern French literature and life,” and of which abundant illustrations are given. Not the least striking of these is a passage from Emile Littre, the once enthusiastic Comtist, who likens his own final mood to that of the Trojan women who pontum aspectabant flentes! “Fit epigraph,” says Mr. Myers, “for a race who have fallen from hope, on whose ears the waves’ world-old message still murmurs without a meaning; while the familiar landmarks fall back into shadow, and there is nothing but the sea.”113113 Nineteenth Century, May 1888, p. 676.

These illustrations, which might be multiplied indefinitely 72sufficiently confirm the words of Mr. Sully in his work on Pessimism:114114Pessimism, p. 317. “I am keenly alive to the fact that our scheme of individual happiness, even when taken as including the good of others now living and to live, is no perfect substitute for the idea of eternal happiness presented in religon. Nobody, I imagine, would seriously contend that the aims of our limited earthly existence, even when our imagination embraces generations to follow us, are of so inspiring a character as the objects presented by religion. . . . Into the reality of these religious beliefs I do not here enter. I would only say that if men are to abandon all hope of a future life, the loss, in point of cheering and sustaining influence, will be a vast one, and one not to be made good, so far as I can see, by any new idea of services to collective humanity.”

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