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IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?
THE NEW IMPORT OF THE QUESTION.
WHAT I am
"A change was coming over the world, the meaning and direction of which even still is hidden from us, a change from era to era.”—FROUDE's History of England, ch. i.
HAT I am about to deal with in this book is
a question which may well strike many, at first sight, as a question that has no serious meaning, or none at any rate for the sane and healthy mind. I am about to attempt inquiring, not sentimentally, but with all calmness and sobriety, into the true value of this human life of ours, as tried by those tests of reality which the modern world is accepting, and to ask dispassionately if it be really worth the living. The inquiry certainly has often been made before; but it has never been made properly; it has never been made in the true scientific spirit. It has always been vitiated either by diffidence or by personal feeling; and the positive school, though they rejoice to question everything else, have, at least in this country, left the worth of life alone. They may now and then, perhaps, have affected to examine it; but their examination has been merely formal, like that of It will express
a custom-house officer, who passes a portmanteau which he has only opened. They have been as tender with it as Don Quixote was with his mended helmet, when he would not put his card-paper visor to the test of the steel sword. I propose to supply this deficiency in their investigations. I propose to apply exact thought to the only great subject to which it has not been applied already.
To numbers, as I have just said, this will of course seem useless. They will think that the question never really was an open one; or that, if it ever were so, the common sense of mankind has long ago finally settled it. To ask it again, they will think idle, or worse than idle. to them, if it expresses anything, no perplexity of the intellect, but merely some vague disease of the feelings. They will say that it is but the old ejaculation of satiety or despair, as old as human nature itself; it is a kind of maundering common to all moral dyspepsia; they have often heard it before, and they wish they may never hear it again.
But let them be a little less impatient. Let them look at the question closer, and more calmly; and it will not be long before its import begins to change for them. They will see that though it may have often been asked idly, it is yet capable of a meaning that is very far from idle; and that however old they may think it, yet as asked by our generation it is really completely new-that it bears a meaning which is indeed not far from
any one of them, but which is practical and pressing-I might almost say portentous--and which is soinething literally unexampled in the past history of mankind.
I am aware that this position is not only not at first sight obvious, but that, even when better understood, it will probably be called false. My first care, therefore, will be to explain it at length, and clearly. For this purpose we must consider two points in order; first, what is the exact doubt we intend to express by our question; and next, why in our day this doubt should have such a special and fresh significance.
Let us then make it quite plain, at starting, that when we ask “Is life worth living ?” we are not asking whether its balance of pains is necessarily and always in excess of its balance of pleasures. We are not asking whether any one has been, or whether any one is happy. To the unjaundiced eye nothing is more clear than that happiness of various kinds has been, and is, continually attained by men. And ingenious pessimists do but waste their labour when they try to convince a happy man that he really must be miserable. What I am going to discuss is not the superfluous truism that life has been found worth living by many; but the profoundly different proposition that it ought to be found worth living by all. For this is what life is pronounced to be, when those claims are made for it that at present universally are made; when, as a general truth, it is said to be worth living; or when any of those august epithets are applied to it that are at present applied so constantly. At present, as we all know, it is called sacred, solemn, earnest, significant, and so forth. To withhold such epithets is considered a kind of blasphemy. And the meaning of all such language is this : it means that life has some deep inherent worth of its own, beyond what it can acquire or lose by the caprice of circumstance-a worth, which though it may be most fully revealed to a man, through certain forms of success, is yet not destroyed or made a minus quantity by failure. Certain forms of love, for instance, are held in a special way to reveal this worth to us; but the worth that a successful love is thus supposed to reveal is a worth that a hopeless love is supposed not to destroy. The worth is a part of life’s essence, not a mere chance accident, as health or riches are ; and we are supposed to lose it by no acts but our own.
Now it is evident that such a worth as this, is, in one sense, no mere fancy. Numbers actually have found it; and numbers actually still continue to find it. The question is not whether the worth exists, but on what is the worth based. How far is the treasure incorruptible; and how far will our increasing knowledge act as moth and rust to it? There are some things whose value is completely established by the mere fact that men do value them. They appeal to single tastes, they desy further analysis, and they thus form, as it were, the bases of all pleasures and happiness. But these are few in number; they are hardly ever met with in a perfectly pure state; and their effect, when they are so met, is either momentary, or far from. vivid. As a rule they are found in combinations of great complexity, fused into an infinity of new substances by the action of beliefs and associations; and these two agents are often of more importance in the result than are the things they act upon. Take for instance a boy at Eton or Oxford, who affects a taste in wine. Give him a bottle of gooseberry champagne ; tell him it is of the finest: brand, and that it cost two hundred shillings a. dozen. He will sniff, and wink at it in ecstasy; he will sip it slowly with an air of knowing reverence; and his enjoyment of it probably will be far keener, than it would be, were the wine really all he fancies it, and he had lived years enough to have come to discérn its qualities. Here the part played by belief and associations is of course evident. The boy's enjoyment is real, and it rests to a certain extent on a foundation of solid fact; the taste of the gooseberry champagne is an actual pleasure to his palate. Anything nauseous, black dose for instance, could never raise him to the state of delight in question. But this simple pleasure of sense is but a small part of the pleasure he actu-ally experiences. That pleasure, as a whole, is a