How To Fight The Battles Of Life
( Originally Published 1903 )
Any people in our day—even well-intentioned people—have lost their faith in idealism. They regard it as a respectable form of philosophy for the education of the young, but as a creed of little use in later life. Theoretically, they say, and for purposes of education, idealism has much to commend it, but, practically, things turn out to be brutally material. Thus such persons divide life into two parts, in one of which we may indulge ourselves in fine theories and sentiments, and, indeed, are to be encouraged in them; and in the other of which we wake rudely from this dream and deal with reality as best we can. Kant, in one of his briefer writings, dealt a hundred years ago with this state of mind. He examined the phrase which was even then familiar: "That may be well enough in theory, but does not work in practice and he showed that it expressed an absurd cont radiction unworthy of a thinking being.
The logical realism of our day, however, is not concerned with theoretical propositions. It turns, on the contrary, to the hard fad of the struggle for existence, in which indifference to others and absolute self-interest are not only permissible, but, as one looks at the real conditions of life, seem more or less positively demanded. These modern realists say: "The world we see about us is one where only a few can succeed and where many must fail. There are not good things enough for all. The question is not whether such a state of things is right or just. On the contrary, it must be admitted to be a hard, unreasonable, unjust universe. It is not for the individual, however, set without consent of his own in such a universe, to change it. His only problem is to make it certain that in such a universe he is 'the hammer, not the anvil.'"
Such is the essence of that worldly wisdom which is the creed of many cultivated people to-day. With it disappears, of course, any need of moral or religious education. Such instruction in schools might as well be abandoned. Indeed, Saint-Just made the original suggestion that instead of such instruction there should be substituted the daily study of the placards posted on the street corners which announce the police regulations of the government as to the conduct of life. Under such a theory of education, young people would grow immensely clever and pratical. They would be trained to get and to keep. They would be free from every sentiment of honor which might be a hindrance in their path. Most of them, it must be confessed, would, early in life, lose physical, intellectual, and moral vigor, and others would lament, perhaps too late, that their youth had been sacrificed to that which was not worth their seeking. At the best, they would acquire but uncertain possessions to be defended daily against a thousand competitors, and these possessions would bring bitterness along with them, both to those who have them and to those who have them not. Peace and happiness would be secured to no one. Such seems to be the issue of this view of life which is now so common among us, and which we call the view of the practical" man.
But what is idealism? It is, as I under-stand it, a form of faith, an inward conviction. It is absolutely necessary for the permanence of the world; yet it never can be proved true, and indeed for him who has it needs no proof. Further, no one becomes an idealist by being taught about it or by reasoning concerning it. Nor is this so strange as it might seem, for the very trustworthiness of the human reason itself is proved to us only by experience. The very truths of religion re-main unproved unless the moral power which issues from them provides their proof. That which has power must have reality. No other proof of reality is final. Even our senses could not convince us, if our experience and the experience of all other men did not assure us that we could—not unconditionally, but under normal conditions—trust them not to deceive. That which brings conviction to one is his experience, and that which rouses in him the desire and the inward disposition to believe in his own experience is the testimony of others who have had that experience themselves.
There is a short treatise, written by one who in his youth was a friend of Goethe's,—the Russian General von Klinger,—which gives its testimony in a few words concerning this idealism in practical life. It may be found in von Klinger's rarely opened works, under the title:" How it is possible without deceit, and even in constant conflictl, to overcome the world." Its contents are simply a series of weighty aphorisms, of which select a few
"First of all," says von Klinger,"onewho would overcome the world must give up thinking of what people call happiness, and must with all his might, without indirectness, or fear, or self-seeking, simply do his duty. He must, that is to say, be pure in mind and heart, so that none of his adions shall be stained by selfishness. Where justice and right-dealing are called for, there must be in him no distinction of great or small, of significant or insignificant... .
"Secondly, for the protection of his own strength and his purity of conduct, he must be free from the desire to shine, free from the shallowness of vanity and the restless search for fame and power. Most human follies proceed from the restlessness of ambition. Ambition demoralizes both those whom it masters and those through whom it accomplishes its ends. The boldest and most candid criticism does not wound so deeply as does the foolish longing for praise... .
"Again, one who is thus pure in motive will permit himself to be conspicuous only when and where his duty demands it. For the rest, he will live a life of seclusion in his family, with few friends, among his books, and in the world of the spirit. Thus he avoids that conflict with others about trifles which to many persons are of such absorbing concern. One may be pardoned for eccentricity in such affairs by having no place at all among them. His life does not touch the circle of society, and he asks of society only to let him do his duty, and then to be permitted to live in peace. It may be that he will thus stir others to envy or to hate, but it will be an envy and hate too petty for expression, or at any rate ineffective for harm. He who has thus withdrawn from trifles gets much out of life. Indeed, he gets more than he experts and more than he has intended; for he finally gains that which men in its coarser sense call happiness... .
"To all this," says von Klinger, "I add another point: that one must withhold him-self from all ambition to pose as a reformer and from all signs of that desire. He must not enter into controversy about opinions with people who have nothing but opinions. He must speak of himself only to himself and think of himself only in himself... . I have developed," concludes von Klinger, "my own character and my own inner experience as my power and disposition have permitted; and so far as I have done this seriously and honestly, so far has come to me of itself what men call happiness and prosperity. I have observed myself more deeply than others and dealt with myself more unsparingly than with others. I have never played a part, never felt inclined thereto, and have ever expressed the convictions I have reached without fear, and have held them fast, so that I now no more fear the possibility of being or doing other than my convictions demand. One is safe from the temptations of others only when one can no more tempt himself. I have borne many responsibilities, but at the conclusion of each I have passed the rest of my time in the profoundest solitude and the most complete obscurity."'
The author of these weighty aphorisms was dealing especially with political life. He does not seek for them any philosophical basis. He offers them simply as the result of his stirring and often adventurous career, and as such his testimony is far more valuable than if it had issued from the closet of a Paytone+One or a theologian who had slight contact with practical affairs. It is not my intention to translate these suggestions into abstract form and make them less real and persuasive. I only desire to annotate them with a few practical comments.
I. Concerning von Klinger's first proposition, it is to be said that true idealism is not the deceiving of oneself concerning reality, or the intentional ignoring of reality, or the hiding from reality, or the creating for oneself a world of unreality. Idealism, on the contrary, is reached by a deeper interpretation of the world, by victory over it and especially by victory over oneself. For we, too, are an integral part of the world and we cannot conquer the whole unless, first of all, we conquer our own part of it, by strength of principles and force of habit. Hence issues that right judgment of success which von Klinger lays down. One of our own contemporaries, Thiers, a man who had in high degree attained success, and who at certain points in his life pursued it with excessive zeal, once made this striking re-mark: " Men of principle need not succeed. Success is necessary only to schemers." In other words, a genuine victory over the world is not to be achieved through that kind of success which the French call succes, and which for many men makes the end of effort. He who plays this game of ambition may as well abandon the hope of peace of mind or of peace with others, and in most cases he must forfeit outright his self-respect..
Real success in life, then, the attainment of the highest human perfection and of true and fruitful activity, necessarily and repeatedly involves outward failure. Success, to von Klinger, means an honorable career with victory at its close. The work of life is regarded in its wholeness, as a brave and honorable man should wish and hope it to be. Unbroken success is necessary only for cowards. Indeed, one may go further and say that the secret of the highest success in important affairs often lies in failure. The men who have most completely commanded the admiration of the world, and who are most conspicuous in history, are not those who have reached the goal of life through success alone. Caesar and Napoleon would have been remembered only as examples of tyranny if it had not been for Brutus, Waterloo and St. Helena. The Maid of Orleans would be recalled as a masterful woman like many others had it not been for her martyrdom. Hannibal would be no noble example if Carthage had conquered. A traitor like Charles I. of England is still held in high honor by many persons who cannot endure the memory of the most heroic character in modern history,—Cromwell. Had Cromwell died on the scaffold and Charles on the throne, this estimate of them would have been reversed. The life of the Emperor Frederick III. is another ex-ample and will be a still more impressive one as the better future looks back on it. The greatest example of all, the cross, the gallows of its time, became for all the world a sign of honor and subdued to itself the power of Rome. Looking at Christianity in a wholly human and untheological way, one may believe that its unexampled success would not have been possible if the scholars and scribes of that day had welcomed it. Something of such failure comes with all right ways of life. Without it, life sinks in the rut of commonplace. This kind of failure should not hear the common reproach of misfortune. It is, on the contrary, the crown of thorns which marks the way of the cross, and proves to be the true crown after all.
2. Concerning the second aphorism of von Klinger's there is this to add: that no self-seeking person ever reaches the end he most desires. It is surprising to see what one may accomplish when he gives his attention and energy wholly to the doing of one thing. Examples of this kind of success meet us at every turn. What these persons at heart de-sire, however, is not the wealth, or honor, or power, or learning which they reach. They prize these possessions only as the necessary prerequisites for happiness. What is it, then, of which they must first of all be convinced? It is the truth that happiness does not come through these possessions, that, in fact, these possessions are likely to bring unhappiness. When this conviction is attained, then, at last, the self-seeking spirit will perhaps abandon its aim.
Of all self-seekers, the most unfortunate are to be found among the educated. When they stand on the lower rung of the ladder which they wish to climb, they are consumed by envy of those above them; and of all the emotions which degrade a man in his own eyes the most humiliating is envy. When, on the other hand, they have climbed to the top, then they are distressed by the constant fear of those who are climbing toward them and whose thoughts and purposes they well know from their own experience. If they seek safety by surrounding themselves by flatterers, then they are never safe from betrayal; for if they seem likely to fall, no one cares to hold them up. If, finally, they shut their ears to these disturbing voices within their hearts and give themselves to self-indulgence, then they lose the very qualities which are most essential to success.
Besides all this, the chances of success for the self-seeker are slight. Not one in ten attains what he desires, and, even of those whom we call fortunate, few should be so reckoned until they die. It is not necessary to cite examples of such failure. The daily paper reports them to us every morning. Long ago one of the prophets of Israel described this unsatisfying result of life and effort in classic words which we may well repeat: "Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes."
Still further, nothing is so exhausting as this self-seeking effort. The passion which it develops is like an access of fever which burns away one's vitality. The strength of health, on the other hand, renews itself through self-forgetting work; and thrives on unselfish service done for worthy ends. Only in such service are other people sincerely inclined to help. Thus it happens that some people, though they work hard and never retire to the health-resorts, still live to a robust old age, while other people spend half the year or perhaps the whole of it at the baths and remain without rest. The many nervous diseases of our time are for the most part caused by the self-centred life, and their real cure must be through a renewal in health of mind and will.
III. As to von Klinger's third suggestion, it is to be said that the inclination to solitude is absolutely necessary not only for happiness, but for the tranquil development of one's spiritual life. The happiness which can really be attained, and which is independ ent of all changes, is to be found in a life given to great thoughts and in a work peacefully directed toward great ends. Such a life is, however, necessarily withdrawn from fruitless sociability. As Goethe says, "To such a life, all else is vanity and illusion." It is by such a course of life that one by degrees escapes from the fickleness and moodiness of life. He learns not to take people too seriously. He comes to regard with tranquillity the shifting changes of opinions and inclinations. So far as his inclination goes and his duties permit,he would rather shun popularity than seek it.
IV. As to the last of von Klinger's paragraphs, it may be said to contain the philosophy of his life. Looking at people as individuals, their lives appear full of contrasts; but taking them all together, their lives are in fad much alike. One sec ion of humanity, of high and of low estate, lives either consciously or unconsciously a merely animal life. Such persons simply follow the path which their physical nature indicates, fulfilling their little span of life, and knowing no other destiny. Another group is ever seeking some escape from this unsatisfying end of life. Dante, in the first canto of his Divine Comedy, very beautifully describes these seekers for the better life; and this search makes in reality the spiritual experience of all great personalities.
The first step in this way of life is taken when one becomes discontented with life as it is and longs for something better. One's reason seeks an outlet from the labyrinth of the world and at last from sheer weariness resolves, at any cost, to forsake the world's ways and to seek peace. When one has come to this resolution, then he is on the way to salvation, and experiences that inner happiness which one gains who has found at last the way he ought to go. And, indeed, this man is essentially saved; for he is now open to the unhindered influences of new spiritual forces, against which in his early life his will had set itself.
Yet, as a matter of fact, he is only ready for his second step. It is the long conflict for supremacy between what the Apostle calls "the old and the new man." Both of them are in him still and his problem is to realize the" new man" and bring it to fulness of life. Many people who are striving for the better life come to this second step and stay there all their days; and this is the reason why so many lives which are rightly directed still give the impression of imperfection, and why they do not seem to contribute much —though often more than we think to the ennobling of human relationships.
There remains the third step of spiritual growth, which, once fairly taken, leads to the complete interpretation of life. It is the stage of practical activity, the participating in the creation of a spiritual kingdom. Some-times it has been likened to the taking part in a great work of architecture, sometimes to the enlistment in an active war. Nothing less than this life of unselfish service can bring to the individual true content. So long as one lives for himself and is considering, even in the highest and noblest way, his own self-culture, there lingers in him some taint of his original selfishness, or, at best, he but half sees his way. As Goethe has expressed it: While one strives, he errs." This selfdirected effort must, at last, cease. Nothing is more untrue, nothing is more fundamentally disheartening, than the maxim of Les-sing which so many have admired, according to which endless effort after truth is to be preferred to the possession of the truth. One might as well say that endless thirst, or endless cold, was more acceptable than the finding of a refreshing fountain or the warmth of the quickening sun.
Here then, in this attitude of life, removed from religious or philosophical restlessness, is the path to continuous inward peace and power. It leads, first of all, to humility and to freedom from self-complacency. It is possible to hold to this path through the midst of all natural ills; it is the best way that life has to offer. What the happiness is which one then finds is hard to communicate to an-other. It comes of ceasing to think first of all of oneself. It has, as Rothe says," no private business to transact." It does its work tranquilly, with absolute certainty that, though the issue of its work may be unrecognized, still it is secure. This way of life brings with it courage, and this courage manifests itself, not in feverish excitement, but in an out-ward habit of composure which testifies to inward and central stability. Such a life trusts its way and its destiny. Outward experiences and the judgments of other men have no power to move it. It is, perhaps, not essential that in the education of youth these truths should be urgently pressed, for they may easily appear visionary and in such a mat-ter all appearance of obscurity and unreality is to be deplored. God permits only high-minded souls, like von Klinger, fully to at ain this way of life.
We need not discuss whether all this should be called idealism—a name which would drive many clever people from its aceptance. Whatever it may be named, it is a faith which has brought to those who have confidently given themselves to it greater in-ward peace than is found in any more familiar creed. It needs but slight observation of life or of history to be convinced of this. And yet, I fear, most of my readers may be more inclined to say with King Agrippa: "Almost thou persuadest me," little as Agrippa profited by the success he attained.
A German poet sums. up the richness of this spiritual peace, which men like von Klinger exhibit, in lines which I thus slightly adapt:
"Outward life is light and shadow, Mingled wrong and struggling right, But within the outward trouble Shines a healing, inward light.
Not to us may come fulfilment, Not below our struggles cease, Yet the heavenly vision gives us, Even here, an inward peace."