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Pleasure

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

WHATEVER he is doing man is always the most interesting of studies. He is never more so than when " taking his pleasure." Often enough it is a sufficiently frivolous business in itself, yet nowhere than here are the heights and deeps of humanity, its weird problems, its endless vistas of possibility more strikingly displayed. At the outset a most singular question confronts us. How is it that pleasure has obtained so ill a name ? The word lies under a religious ban. It has become one of the most sinister and equivocal in the dictionary. To call any one " a man of pleasure " is, in most circles, to suggest the worst. In hymns, sermons, devotions, the soul is warned against pleasure as one of its chief dangers. What does it mean ?

For when, putting aside all prepossessions, we come to examine the matter for ourselves, we find Nature offering this banned product as her master-piece, as her chief good. To that glow, that over-flow of sensation which we know as a sense of pleasure, the whole machinery of life, at its best and highest, has contributed. It is only in the harmony of all Nature's powers, in the delicate adjustment of a million co-operators within and without us, that this result is achieved. So wondrous delicate, is, indeed, the process, that it is never kept up for long at its first pitch. The pleasure of a walk, of a piece of noble scenery, of listening to great music, is never a fixed quantity. At the end one is sensible of fatigue, of strain, perhaps of vacuity. It is the earlier moments that give us the high rapture. Life seems then to exhale a delicate perfume, to offer a flavour which dissipates, almost ere it is fully recognised. To taste it again we must wait till another drop of that subtlest of essences has once more collected within us.

But this supreme product of Nature, this result of what seem her highest and healthiest states is, as we have said, placed under a ban, made the object of a thousand warnings. " This vain world's pleasure " is the refrain of our hymns. Pascal, one of the greatest of human spirits, made it one of his maxims to renounce every pleasure." Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of himself and his associates as having " rejected as filth all that shines bright or sounds sweet to the ear." St. John of the Cross made it his rule to renounce all that was agreeable to the senses and to embrace all that was repulsive. How has this come about ? The answer is given in the wondrous story, not by any means ended yet, of the human soul.

The story is in many parts. The education of the soul in relation to pleasure has been conducted not only by religion, but in an important degree by philosophy. We may spend a moment here in inquiring as to its verdict. Ancient Greece and modern Germany have given us much that is illuminating on our subject, but nowhere, as Voltaire in his day acknowledged, has the moral question here been discussed with more depth and vigour, or with a clearer grasp of the issues involved, than in England. By Hobbes and Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, by Hume and Hartley, by Tucker and Paley of the earlier time, and by Bentham and Spencer, by Sedgwick and Martineau and Green in the later day, almost everything has been said that can be said. Some of these wage war without quarter against the ascetic position. To Abraham Tucker, to Bentham and to Paley happiness is simply the sum of pleasures. Pleasure, without qualification, is the chief good. Hartley, in his " Observations on Man," improves on this with his division of pleasures into those of gross self-interest, of refined self-interest, and of rational self-interest. But it was Hutcheson, in his " Inquiry Concerning Moral Good and Evil " and his " Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections," who first developed into clearness the principle of the absolute difference in the quality and value of pleasures. It is from this starting-point that we are able to reduce the earlier chaos of opinion to harmony. It is in the light of his principle that we discover the real meaning of renunciation, and that the ascetics were not in such discord with nature as at first seemed. When he declares that " we have an immediate sense of a dignity, a perfection, or beatific quality in some kinds of pleasure which no intenseness of the lower kinds may equal," we feel ourselves at once at the key of the position.

What we have learned since Hutcheson's day is all a confirmation of his teaching. Evolution, properly understood, shows us the way along which, on this question, science, philosophy and religion reach their reconciliation. It shows us, to begin with, pleasure as unquestionably a good. On all its planes it is a harmony, an achievement, a nature's triumph. Its varying forms, of lower and higher, represent the marvellous story of man's growth. Nature here is as a great musician, who begins his composition with a simple air, which as it proceeds is incessantly repeated, but ever with a fresh note, a new element brought in, until what at first was the barest musical thread has been woven into the most elaborate and complicated harmony.

That pleasure is an integral part, and a final end in the scheme of things, is a conclusion which it is impossible to escape. The lack of it is in itself a sign of unhealth, of an unnatural condition. Every element is charged with pleasure, every action yields it. To eat, to drink, to work, to rest, to sleep, to awake, to listen, to converse, to hear, to see—all is, to a wholesome nature, to enjoy. Sir James Paget, arguing from the whole analogy of things, maintained that dying, as a natural act, contained its own pleasure. The opposite of it—that is, pain, discomfort—is a signal of danger, of a breach in the constitutional order. The most unlikely things, properly treated, yield their pleasure. The anatomist finds delight in a skeleton. Nature is continually hoarding her delights for us, and making them, like old wine, the more valuable for the keeping. It has taken a million years to ripen the exact sensation with which a geologist breaks open his stone and finds his fossil within. And as with things, so with circumstances. Renan is assuredly right in his observation that " everything considered, there are few situations in the vast field of existence wherein the balance of debt and credit does not leave a little surplus of happiness." Were it other-wise men would not cling to life as they do. John-son, in his last days, swollen with dropsy and choked with asthma, would, he declared, have given one of his legs for another year of life. Poor Dodd, condemned to be hanged, when told by pious friends as a consolation that he was going to leave a wretched world, would not join in the cant. " No, no," said he ; " it has been a very agreeable world to me."

How comes it, then, that, with all this before us, we have that note from religion ; that there rises in us the scorn for the mere man of pleasure ; that we revolt against the whole hedonist theory of living ? Are we right in our disgust for Lord Chesterfield when he writes to his son—a natural son, by the way—exhorting him to pursue pleasure as " the last branch of his education " ? Should we approve Madame du Chatelet, Voltaire's mistress, in her assertion that we have nothing else to do in the world than to obtain agreeable sensations and sentiments " ? Has De Chaulieu uttered the final word in declaring that " la volupté is the art of using pleasures with delicacy and to taste them with sentiment " ? What is the difference between this attitude and that of the patriot who dies for his country, of the martyr who endures the scorching flame as a witness for his faith ? Is there any ascertainable link between the attitude of the Chesterfields and those others we have quoted, and that, to take one instance out of many, of a Pionius, one of the Decian martyrs, who, when told by the people of Smyrna that " it was good to live and to see the light," replied : " Yes, life is good, but there is a better life. Light is good if it be the true light. All around us is good and fair ; we do not wish for death or hate the works of God. But there is a better world in comparison with which we despise this."

We are here at the root of the whole matter. These utterances, so widely contrasted, are nevertheless all human and all natural. But they are on varying scales. They are a kind of psychological strata, exhibiting different stages in the evolution of the soul. Throughout them all there is, be it observed, one ground-note. Nature is in all of them true to her assertion of pleasure being essentially a good. The difference is in the kind of pleasure and the kind of good. The renunciator, the patriot, the martyr, in a word, the spiritual man, has no disagreement with the rest on our first question. They do not belittle God's world. They are not so foolish as to decry that marvellous system—evidence in its every detail of the Eternal beneficence—by which the sum of things yields unceasingly to us its usufruct of enjoyment. But the music for them has become scientific. It has advanced beyond the first simple air. It contains that, losing none of its melody, but into the composition some other elements, from a higher source, have come. Knowing the animal pleasures, they find they are more than animals ; that they are spirits, in a spiritual universe, which in its turn yields its delights. Their endurance of bodily pains, of material losses at the call of principle, was never regarded by them as a contradiction of that law of Nature which fixes enjoyment as the outcome and goal of all healthy effort. If the delight was not there at the moment their faith saw it waiting. Their endurance was a price paid for the truer well-being and enjoyment of their fellows. " Oh, my beloved and dearest," writes Athanasius from his exile to his friends, " if it is from tribulations we must pass to comfort, we ought not to be grieved or frightened . . . but to treat such things as a probation." There is here, we say, always the ground tone of a happiness present or to come.

More than that. We have spoken of that marvellous range .of the law of pleasure by which the most unlikely objects are made to yield it. A modern school of philosophy has sneered immeasurably at the Christian theory of self-denial. And undoubtedly the principle in earlier times was carried to unreasonable lengths—beyond all that the New Testament enjoins. Yet in what seem to us their wildest excesses the ascetics exhibit to us no breach of continuity in the law of enjoyment; what they instead reveal are the immense joy-reserves of the soul. We see here men stripping themselves of every outer good, of every comfort of the senses, because they had discovered inner resources so full and so intense as made these other pleasures infantile in comparison. Does anyone doubt that Jesus on the Cross had a deeper joy than Caesar on his throne ; that Francis of Assisi possessed the world more truly than the reigning pope and emperor ?

The truths which emerge from a study of this kind seem now fairly obvious. The system of things has been constructed with a view to universal enjoyment. Man at the height he has now reached has a vast scale from which he may choose. To live amongst the lower animal pleasures is to desert his rank, to deny the spiritual order to which he belongs. The martyrs, the renunciators, believe in pleasure ; they have it in their sacrifice ; they know they are by their sacrifice procuring it for others. No present circumstances can hinder the ultimate reign of the nobler joy. Out of the present tribulation will come the far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.



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