( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IT is not only in the practical manifestations of our life, but also in the domain of our ideas that there is a need of clearing. Anarchy reigns in human thought. We walk among the underbrush, without compass or sun, and without direction, lost in the infinity of detail.
As soon as man has recognized that he has an aim, and that this aim is to be a man, he organizes his thoughts accordingly. Every mode of thinking, to understand or to judge, which does not make him stronger or better, he throws aside as unwholesome. First of all, he avoids the too common plan of amusing himself with his own thought. Thought is a tool, haveing its own proper function in the whole. It is not a plaything. Let us take an example. Here is the studies of a painter. The implements are all in their places Everything indicates that that assemblage of means is disposed in view of an aim to reach. Open the door to monkeys. They climb on the benches, hang to the cords, wrap themselves in the draperies, coif themselves with slippers, juggle with the brushes, taste the colors, and pierce the canvas to see what the portraits have inside their bodies. I do not doubt their pleasure. They must surely find this kind of exercise very interesting. But a studio is not made to let monkeys run loose in. Nor is thought a ground for acrobatic evolutions. A man worthy of the name thinks as he is and as his tastes are. He goes into everything with all his heart, and not with that fitful and sterile curiosity, under pretext of wishing to see and know everything, and thereby exposing himself to the risk of never feeling one healthy or deep emotion, or doing one right action.
One other habit in urgent need of correction, ordinarily attendant on this fictitious life, is the mania for examining oneself and for analyzing oneself at all times. I do not advise man to neglect the introspective examination of his own conscience. To endeavor to see clearly into one's own mind and motives of conduct is an element essential to right living. But quite other is the vigilance, another thing the incessant endeavor to watch one's life and thought, and to demonstrate one's self like a piece of mechanism. It is to lose one's time and to lose one's way. The man who, to better prepare himself for a race, would first deliver himself to a minute anatomical examination regarding his powers of locomotion would risk having his members dislocated before he took one step. "You have all that you require to walk with, so go ahead. Take care not to fall and use your strength with discretion." Seekers for insignificant things and the merchants of scruples reduce themselves to inaction. It suffices to have but a glimmer of common sense to understand that man is not made to pass his life in a Buddhistic trance.
Common sense—do you not find what is designated by that name is becoming as rare as the sensible customs of other days? Common sense is an old story. We must have something new—something else—and we seek it in impossible places. It is a refinement that the vulgar would not understand how to procure, and it is so agreeable to distinguish oneself. Instead of conducting ourselves as a natural person would who uses the clearly indicated means at his disposal, we reach the most astonishing singularities by the force of genius. They would prefer to be off the track than follow the simple line. All the bodily defects and deformities treated by orthopedy, give but a feeble idea of the humps, the twistings, the dislocations we have inflicted upon ourselves in order to escape from the right of good sense. And, we Iearn at our own cost that one does not deform oneself with impunity. Novelty is, after all, ephemeral. There is nothing durable but the eternal commonplace, and if one turns aside it is to seek the most dangerous adventures. Happy is he who is able to return and learns to become simple again. Good simple common sense is not, as some think, the inborn property of the first corner, a vulgar and trivial baggage which costs no Labor to anyone. I compare it to those old popular songs, imperishable and anonymous, which seem to have come from the very hearts of the people. Good sense is the capital slowly and painfully accumulated by the labor of centuries. It is a pure treasure which only he understands the value of who has lost it or who sees people live after having it no longer. For my part, I think no pains too great to take to acquire and guard good sense, to maintain one's eyes clearseeing and one's judgment right. One takes great care of his sword, for fear it might be bent or rusted. How much more should he take care of his thought.
But let us understand this well. An appeal to good sense is not to such thought as grovels to the earth, to a narrow positivism which denies everything it cannot see or touch. For that is also a lack of good sense, to wish that man should be absorbed in his material sensation, and to forget the high realities of the inner life. Here we touch a painful subject, around which the greatest problems of humanity are being agitated. In fact we are striving to attain to a conception of life. We are seeking it amid a thousand obscurities and pains, and all that which touches upon the spiritual realities becomes daily more agonizing. In the midst of the grave perplexities and the momentary disorders which accompany great crises of thought, it seems more than ever difficult for man to free himself from the affair with a few simple principles. Yet necessity comes to our aid as it has done for the men of all times. The programme of life is terribly simple, after all, and in the fact that existence is so pressing and that it is imposed on one, it gives us notice that it precedes the idea that we can form for ourselves, and that no one can wait to live until he has first understood. We are everywhere confronted by our philosophies, our explanations, our beliefs, and it is this actual accomplished fact, prodigious and irrefutable, which recalls us to order when we would deduct the life of our reasonings and wait to act until we shall have finished philosophizing. It is this fortunate necessity which hinders the world from stopping while man is in doubt as to his road. Travellers of a day, we are carried along in a vast movement to which we are called to contribute, but which we have not foreseen, nor embraced in its entirety, nor sounded to its deepest depths. Our part consists in filling faithfully the position of private soldier which has fallen to us, and our thought should adapt itself to the situation. Do not say that we live in more trying times than did our ancestors, for that seen from afar is often badly seen, and besides it is bad grace to complain of not having been born in one's grandfather's time. What one may think the least contestable on this subject is this: since the world began it is troublesome to see it clear. Everywhere and always to think justly has been difficult. The ancients have no privilege in that above the moderns. And we may add that there is no difference between men when one reaches a point where they can be considered from that point of view. Whether a man obeys or commands, teaches or learns, holds a pen or a hammer, it costs him the same to fully discern the truth. The few lights that humanity acquires in its advancement are doubtless of great utility, but they also aggrandize the number and extent of the problems. The difficulty is never re-moved, the intelligence always meets with the obstacle. The unknown dominates us and draws us to every side. But as one does not need to exhaust all the water of the springs to stanch one's thirst, one does not need to know everything to live. Humanity lives and has always lived on some elementary provisions.
We will try to indicate them. First of all, humanity lives by confidence. In doing that it but reflects, commensurate with its conscious thought, that which is the hidden foundation of all beings. An imperturbable faith in the stability of the universe, and its intelligent ordering, sleeps in everything that exists. The flowers, the trees, the animals all live in calm strength and an entire security. There is confidence in the rain that falls, in the morning, in the brook running to the sea. All that which is seems to say: "I am, therefore I should be. There are good reasons for that, let us be assured."
So, too, mankind lives by confidence. For the reason that it is it bears in itself the reason sufficient for his being, a pledge of assurance. He rests in the power that has willed that he should be. It is to guard this confidence and not allow it to be shaken by anything, and on the contrary to cultivate it and render it more evident and personal that the first effort of our thought should tend. All which adds to our confidence is good. Because from that is born tranquil energy, reposeful action, love of life and fruitful labor. Deeply seated confidence is the mysterious spring which sets in motion the energy within us. It nourishes us. It is by that that man lives, much more than by the bread he eats. Thus, everything that shakes this confidence is evil-poison and not food.
Unhealthy is every system of thought that attacks the very fact of life to declare it an evil. Life has been too often wrongly estimated in this century. Is it surprising that the tree withers when you water the roots with corrosive substances? There is, however, a very simple reflection that might be made in face of all this philosophy of nothingness ; you declare life evil. Very well. What remedy are you going to offer against it? Can you combat it, or suppress it? I do not ask you to suppress your own life, to commit suicide. Of what advantage would that be to us?—but to suppress life, not only human life, but its obscure and inferior base or origin, all that growth of existence that reaches toward the light and according to you rolls toward misfortune: I ask you to supprese the will to live that quivers through immensity, to suppress, in short, the source of life. Can you do it? No. Then leave us in peace. Since no one can hold life in check, is it not better to learn to estimate it and to employ it than to try to disgust others with it? When one knows that a certain food is dangerous to health one does not eat it. And, when a certain fashion of thinking takes away our confidence, our joy and our strength, we should reject it, certain that not only it is a detestable food for the mind, but that it is false. There is no truth for man but in humanizing thoughts, and pessimism is inhuman. Besides, it lacks modesty as well as logic.
To dare to find that prodigious thing called life evil one must have seen the very foundation—almost to have made it. What a strange attitude is that of certain great thinkers of the times. In truth, they act as if they had created the world in their youth, a very long time ago, but now they are convinced that it was a decided mistake.
Let us nourish ourselves from other meat, fortify our souls by comforting thoughts. For man that which is truest is what strengthens him the most.
If humanity lives by confidence, it lives also by hope. Hope is that form of confidence which turns toward the future. All life is a result and an aspiration. All that is supposes a point of departure and tends toward a point of arrival. To live is to become ; to become is to aspire. The immense Become is infinite hope ! There is hope at the root of all things, and that hope is reflected in the heart of man. Without hope, no life. The same power which made us to be incites us to mount still higher! What is the sense of that tenacious instinct that drives us to progress? The true meaning is that there should result something from life that it elaborates for itself, a good greater than itself, toward which it moves slowly, and that this dolorous sower who is called man needs like all sowers to count on the morrow. The history of humanity is one of invincible hope. Otherwise it would have been ended long since. To walk under his burdens, to guide himself in the , night, to rise again from his falls and his ruins, not to abandon himself to death even, humanity needed to hope ever and sometimes even against all hope. That is the cordial that sustains us. If we had had but logic we should long since have drawn this conclusion ; the last word is everywhere to death, and we would have died of that thought. But we have hope, and it is for that that we live and believe in life.
Suso, the great monk and mystic, one of the simplest and best men that ever lived, had a touching habit. Every time that he met a woman, the oldest and the poorest, he stepped respectfully aside, though to do that he must set his bare feet among the thorns or in the muddy gutter. "I do that," he said, "to render homage to our holy lady, the Virgin Mary!" Let us render to hope a like reverence. If we meet it under the form of a spear of wheat which pierces the furrow, the bird which broods and feeds her nestlings, of a poor wounded animal which gathers itself together, rises and continues its way, of a peasant who labors and sows a field ravaged by inundation or hail, of a nation which slowly repairs its losses and heals its wounds, under no matter what humble and suffering exterior, salute it. When we encounter it in the legends, the untutored songs, in the simple beliefs, salute it again. For it is the same always, the immortal, the indestructible daughter of God !
We do not dare hope enough. The man of these days has become strangely timid. The fear that the sky may fall, that acme of absurdity of fear, believed in by our Gallic ancestors, has entered into our own hearts. Does the drop of water doubt the ocean, the ray mistrust the sun? Our senile wisdom has realized that prodigy. It resembles those cross old pedagogues whose principal office consisted in railing at the playful mischief, or the juvenile enthusiasms of their young scholars. It is time to become little children once more, to relearn to join the hands, and open wide eyes before the mystery which wraps us around, to remember that in spite of our knowledge we know but little, that the world is larger than our brains, and that that is fortunate, for it is so prodigious it must hold unknown re-sources, and we can accord it some credit without accusing ourselves of improvidence. Let us not treat it as creditors do an insolvent debtor. We should reanimate its courage and relight the holy flame of hope ! Since the sun rises still, since the earth puts forth new blossoms, since the bird builds its nest, since the mother smiles at her child, let us have courage to be men, and leave the rest to Him who numbers the stars ! As to me, I wish I could find words of flame to say to whoever feels his heart bowed down in these times of disillusion, lift your courage, hope again; he is sure to deceive himself least who has the audacity to hope the most.
The most ingenuous hope is nearer to the truth than the most rational despair.
Another source of light on the path of humanity is goodness. I am not of those who believe in the natural perfection of man, and teach that society corrupts him. Of all the forms of evil it is, on the contrary, the hereditary form which dismays me most. But, I sometimes ask myself how it is that this old virus, empoisoned as it is with vile instincts, vices inoculated in the very blood, all that mass of slaveries—legacies of the past—has not overcome us. It is without doubt that there is something else. That other thing is kindness.
Given the unknown that hovers above our heads, our reason so limited, the agonizing and contradictory enigma of our destinies, lies, hatred, corruption, suffering and death, what shall we think? What do? To all these questions a sublime and mysterious voice has answered : Be good. It must be, then, that kindness is Divine, like confidence, like hope, since it cannot die when so many powers are arrayed against it. It has against it the native ferocity of what may be called the beast in man. It has against it deception, force, interest, and above all ingratitude. Why does it pass white and intact in the midst of its dark enemies, like the prophet of the legend sacred among the roaring beasts ?
It is because its enemies are things from. beneath, while kindness is from above. The horns, the teeth, the claws, the eyes filled with murderous fire, can do nothing against the rapid wing which soars toward the heights and escapes them. Thus kindness escapes the machinations of its enemies. It has done still more, in that it has sometimes had the beautiful triumph of winning its persecutors. It has seen wild beasts grow tame, lie down at its feet and obey its law.
At the very heart of the Christian faith the most sublime of its doctrines for him who can penetrate the profoundest sense and the most humane, is this : To save lost humanity the Invisible God came to dwell among us in the form of a man, and He willed to be known by the sole sign—love.
Healing, consoling, sweet to the unhappy, to the wicked even, kindness engenders light beneath its steps. Kindness clarifies and simplifies. It has chosen the most modest part—to bind up wounds, wipe away tears, appease misery, soothe aching hearts, to pardon and conciliate. But it is of kindness that we have the greatest need. Therefore, since we are seeking the best way to render thought fruitful and simple, really con-formable to our human destiny, we will sum up the method in these words, Have confidence, hope, and be kind.
I would not discourage lofty speculations, nor disuade anyone whomsoever from leaning upon the problems of the unknown : the vast abysses of science or philosophy. But, we are always obliged to return from those distant voyages toward the point where we are and often even to the same place where we walk without apparent result. There are conditions in life and social complications where the savant, the thinker and the ignorant are equally unable to see clearly. The present epoch has often confronted us with such situations, and I guarantee to him who would follow our method that he will soon recognize that it is good.
As I have in all this skirted upon religious ground, at least in a general way, some one may ask me, perhaps, to say in a few simple words which is the best religion, and I hasten to explain myself on that subject. But, might it not, perhaps, be better to put this question as it is ordinarily put in asking which is the best religion? All religions have certain fixed characteristics, and the qualities or defects inherent to each. One could, then, compare them with each other if necessary, but with that comparison are always mingled fixed beliefs or involuntary partiality. It is better to put the question in another manner, and ask, "Is my religion good, and , how shall I know that it is good?" To that question here is the answer: Your religion is good if it is vital and active; if it nourishes in you the sentiment of the infinite value of existence, confidence, hope and kindness; if it is allied with the best part of yourself against the worst, and shows ceaselessly the necessity of becoming a new man; if it makes you understand that pain is a liberator; if it increases your respect for the conscience of others; if it makes forgiveness easier to you, fortune less arrogant, duty dearer, the beyond less obscure. If so, your religion is good, no matter what its name. However rudimentary it may be, when it fills this office, it comes from the authentic source and binds you to man and God !
But will it, by chance, do you any good to believe yourself better than others, to frown, to domineer over another conscience or to deliver your own to slavery, to stifle your scruples, to practice a cult according to the mode or do good for your own interest or through calculation of what may lie beyond the tomb? Oh, then, whether you claim to follow Buddha, Moses, Mahomet or Christ himself, your religion is worth nothing; it separates you from men and God.
Perhaps I have not the right to speak thus, but others have done so before me, notably He who answered the questioning scribe in the parable of the good Samaritan. I intrench myself behind His authority.