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Ambition

( Originally Published 1923 )

IF the average length of human life were at least a hundred years, I could readily understand why so many people work day and night, amidst the greatest privations, with much suffering, groaning and lamenting, merely in order to lay aside a sum sufficient to permit them to enjoy life for a span of years more, free of care and sorrow.

But as things are, alas, human life does not exceed, on the average, three or four score years three score and ten, as the Holy Scripture says and so, unhappily, it is given only to a very few, and rarely to those who work the hardest, amid strain and stress, to enjoy their saved-up wealth for a long period.

Indeed, there are so very many who, while on the road to a happy and restful evening of life, fall victims to their duties and vocation long before they reach the harbor they have so long been wishing for.

Entirely given up to their work and vocations, they fail to pay any attention to their health or to the requirements of bodily hygiene. And from personal observation I know that in no country of the world is this the case to such an extent as among the business men of America.

Thus, it is no wonder that the continuons wear and tear, the overwork and great fatigue without subsequent rest, end their lives at a relatively early age. Many young people working in badly ventilated rooms, for instance, without due attention to the principles relating to a rational and fortifying diet, and never taking walks in the open air to allow of free expansion of their lungs and an adequate supply of oxygen to their system, readily develop tuberculosis.

Many other persons, as soon as they get to be forty years of age or somewhat older, though some-times even before that time, develop a high blood-pressure and die of arteriosclerosis when only middle aged a consequence of the never ending stress to which they have been exposed by the chase after the almighty dollar. To this purpose they have de-voted all their thoughts and every minute of their time, working and toiling without reasonable interruptions for rest and repose.

There are hundreds and thousands of American business men who never take the time to enjoy a walk amid the wonders of nature or a rest after the day's toil.

It is not surprising that the entire disregard of the most elementary requirements of hygiene, their minds being entirely taken up by their ambition to acquire great wealth, sends them to an early grave.

In this we see another instance of the manner in which nature avenges herself when a correct measure in all things is not kept. Even ambition, other-wise rather a pleasant stimulant in our prosaic daily life, and which really makes life worth while for many of us, must be bridled and kept within reasonable bounds. I must admit, however, that to a certain category of men, those specially favored from heaven with extraordinary gifts of the intellect, those who harbor an inward impulse to strive for the highest ideals, such moderation is very hard to observe.

To those whom divine benevolence has granted extraordinary abilities and even genius, it is indeed an impossible task not to consecrate themselves with all their souls and all the energy they are capable of to their vocations and special provinces, their minds being directed incessantly, day and night, to new inventions or problems. And so there must necessarily happen to them rather often what happened to Icarus, of whose tragic fate mythology tells us, when he attempted to fly up in the heavens with his artificial wings. Owing to the heat of the sun's rays as he drew nearer to it, his wings were melted, and he fell and lost his young life.

It is a tragic fact that great geniuses seldom reach an advanced age. The fate of the great princes of music, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin, exemplifies this fact.

Precisely the same is true of the great scholars and inventors. I have already directed attention to the frequency with which great scholars and also widely known business men acquire hardening of the blood-vessels of the brain as a result of their continuous mental efforts without subsequent rest and relaxation. Such men suffer apoplectic attacks and often die when comparatively young.,

How sad it is, at the same time, that the star of many an inventor and discoverer, unrecognized in life and cheated out of his expectations and hopes, rises only above his grave! His is very often a sad fate. Too often he is exposed to disappointments and deceptions of all kinds, and must fight for his views and convictions against others and combat adverse and erroneous opinions. How of-ten it happens that other investigators try to steal his invention, or claim it to be their own and dispute his priority!

Now if we consider that in many men of a nervous and excitable disposition even merely a lively discussion is apt to cause palpitation of the heart, rise of blood pressure, and sometimes even a ternporary arrest of the heart, it is not to be wondered at that in such persons arteriosclerosis and old age in general may make their appearance early; or even, likewise, disease of the mind, if there should be present a predisposition for it through inheritance or from any other cause.

Among the great pioneers of the physical sciences, Sir Humphrey Davy and Faraday, arteriosclerosis of the brain developed at an early age. Indeed, Sir Humphrey died at the age of fifty-one after an apoplectic attack. Faraday already in the forties showed symptoms of arteriosclerosis of the brain, viz., headaches, cerebral pressure sensations, dizziness, and a considerable loss of memory. So forgetful was he that once, having worked for two weeks on a certain problem, he found out by accident that only a few months before he had already worked out the same thing. He had absolutely for-gotten all about it. Neither he nor Sir Humphrey Davy ever knew an hour's rest until they broke down from overwork. Faraday became so forgetful in his fifties that often he could not spell a word correctly.

That such great inventors and discoverers frequently fall victims to a sad fate cannot surprise those who know how impractical they are as regards the questions of every-day life. Often they die in poverty, while others make large fortunes out of the fruits of their brains the inventions and discoveries they have made.

It seems as if fate herself desired cruelly to persecute those who, with their great minds, find out the important secrets of nature, previously concealed, which they then apply to the benefit of all mankind.

But even mankind, let us hasten to state, is most ungrateful to the great inventors and discoverers, who often sink prematurely to their graves with a broken heart.

I shall here describe the tragic fate of two great pioneers as striking examples of the fate that awaits such great men :

Ignace Philip Semmelweis, a Hungarian born in Budapest in 1811, was the discoverer of the true nature of puerperal sepsis (childbed fever) which until his time carried off yearly many thousands of unfortunate mothers. Until the year 1846 an enormous mortality prevailed in the obstetrical wards of Vienna, the largest in Europe at that time. So great was the mortality that, among the women that lay there in childbed, as many as one out of five, sometimes even one out of three, succumbed. Semmelweis conceived the idea that it must be the doctors and students of the clinic, who also per-formed the autopsies at the adjacent pathological institute and often examined the women immediately after completion of an autopsy, that were responsible for the infection. A tragic accident which then happened confirmed him in his conviction. Dr. Kolletschka, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence, was wounded in the finger by a medical student while dissecting, and died after showing exactly the same symptoms as the women with puerperal sepsis. Semmelweis then insisted that before each examination the hands should be washed with chlorine solution. Immediately, the mortality dropped below 1 per cent. When Semmelweis thereupon published his monograph on the infectious origin of puerperal sepsis he was laughed at and attacked from all sides, and in consequence even lost his position at the university. They completely tabooed him. Even Virchow went as far as to say of him, "the fellow is simply speculating!"

It was also due to Virchow, the great pathologist, that the recognition of the antediluvial existence of man was delayed for twenty years. He maintained that the characteristic signs presented by the skulls of prehistoric men were of a pathological nature, and due merely to disease. But when similar skulls were found at points far distant from one another, as in France, Croatia, and Germany, with exactly the same characteristic signs, then this great pathologist had to cease his stubborn resistance and give in.

I believe that if there is anything that will displease God, it must be when those who are on the highest steps of the ladder look down with contempt upon those who are climbing up under difficulties, and try rather to throw them off than to cheer and assist them.

As a result of the constant attacks upon him and the continual fighting, Semmelweis became mentally affected and had to be placed in a lunatic asylum. He died there fourteen days later, and through the irony of fate he succumbed to exactly the same disease he had been combating all his life, septic fever, in consequence of infection of a small wound on his finger.

The fate of another great discoverer was no bet-ter: Robert Mayer, who discovered the natural law of the conservation of energy. He made his first observation on this subject, which rendered his name famous, when a young doctor. On board a ship lying in the harbor of Batavia he had occasion to perform venesection on the arm of a shipmate, and was surprised to find that the blood in the vein was as red as that in the arteries, owing to the influence of the tropical climate. This led him to his great discovery. Publishing his observations and upholding his theories, he was attacked from all sides, and had to fight bitterly for recognition. This had disastrous consequences on his mind, for in an attack of insanity he committed suicide by jumping from a window to the street. "Le risque du métier," the Frenchman' would say, commenting on this tragic fate of inventors and discoverers.

But even if not all inventors and discoverers are as unfortunate as these two men, they all have to put up with the irony and satire of their "grateful" fellowmen. When Galvagni was addressing the Medical Society of Bologna on his discovery of the galvanic current through his memorable experiment with the electrified leg of a frog, his colleagues greeted him with incredulous laughter. He was nicknamed "the frog's dancing master."

Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, was received with scorn and derision by his colleagues.

The inventor of the procedure of percussion, Dr. Auenbrugger, of Vienna, was also ridiculed and his invention recognized only forty-two years later, just before his death, the famous French physician, Corvisart, publishing a book on his methods.

So many inventors and discoverers do not live to see the triumph of their discoveries, and not a few of them are driven to an early grave by their disappointments and the subsequent nervous excitements and breakdown! The bitter contest and efforts, the struggle for the recognition of their ideas and theories, consume their vitality and often lead to their acquiring diseases likely to shorten their lives.

The same applies to political rivalry, financial speculation, and gambling on the exchange. Many a financier pays dearly for his first million, as does also the politician who at last attains the high post in the government of his country for which he had been bitterly striving for years. Frequently arteriosclerosis and a weak heart constitute the price which they must pay for their success, and often it does not take long ere we read in the papers a notice that such and such a famous statesman, or prince of finance, or steel magnate or other great business man, has died suddenly of heart failure or an apoplectic stroke. Sometimes they get off rather cheaply if they develop some disturbance of the nervous system, or of general nutrition, or metabolism, which is governed by the nervous system, e.g., diabetes, a disease most frequent amongst captains of finance, successful business men, statesmen, and diplomats.

Now, I raise the question : Should we give up all our ambitions, our striving for high honors, our longing for inventions and discoveries, our hopes for imperishable fame, simply because it may shorten our lives and expose us to protracted diseases? (It is true, however, that only an immoderate, indomitable ambition, great efforts, and fatigue without subsequent rest and recovery, ex-pose us to such dangerous consequences.)

Was it not the royal prince, Gautama Buddha, who taught that the highest aim of man is renunciation, complete annihilation, the "Nirvana," which after all must inevitably come? From this view-point, striving after high rank, honors, and distinctions is merely a foolish thing!

Yet even if it is literally true that we mortals are nothing but perambulating heaps of earth consisting of earthy salts and other temporary ingredients, all of which matter soon returns to the earth whence it came "pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris," says the Holy Scripture our benevolent Creator has given us an immortal mind which nothing can prevent from soaring to the heavens and performing deeds that move the whole world.

If we followed strictly the teachings of Buddha, the energy and impulse toward higher things existing in many men, the investigation of great problems that are occupying the minds of the educated world, and the ambition for new discoveries and inventions, in fact, all progress in science, would be nipped in the bud.

Indeed, we may observe that in the very countries in which Buddha's religion has been dominant scarcely any inventions or discoveries of such importance as to reach us and match those of Europeans have been made. Furthermore, it may be pointed out that the nations in which Buddhism has been a ruling factor have not been able to maintain their independence and develop the necessary strength to resist foreign invaders. Thus we see that India, the cradle of Buddhism and the country in which it was the creed of the majority of the population, became a vassal to other nations.

We may harbor admiration for the sublime teachings of the great Buddha, but let us say at once that if we should follow his teachings strictly it would mean the end of all joy in our work and of all our energies and impulses to activity and labor. They constitute an Utopia as compared to the present circumstances of life, and would kill all ambition, in common with the cruder teachings of the Russian fanatics, the Bolshevists. They would mean the end of all individuality.

No, such teachings may suit the inhabitants of the East, but they are certainly not in harmony with the ways of thinking of the western nations and especially of the Anglo-Saxon race, and are quite contrary to their soul and nature. For in looking through the pages of history, we see therein the deeds to which they were impelled by their great ambition. In discoveries and inventions, they are the leaders of the world! And in regard to the capacity for work, America takes the lead. This I know from personal observation, having spent fourteen months in the United States. I have travelled through all of Europe and a part of Africa, but nowhere have I seen so much work done day by day and so indefatigably as in America. Americans are the most industrious workers of all.

In this connection I should like to point out that nature itself compels man to work. And not only man, but even all of the animals. I would even go so far as to say that to work is a kind of instinct implanted in man and animals by nature herself. It is a natural consequence of those two great instincts, hunger and sexual desire, which keep him irresistibly under their spell. Even the least and most despised insect is a worker, for he is governed by the same instincts. Man and animals must work to satisfy their hunger. Sexuality impels both the male and female of animals to build their homes, and when they have begotten offspring they must work to provide them with food.

"God slumbers in every animal," says the pious Mohammedan, and therefore it is a great sin against God and nature to kill an animal, even an insect, unless one is compelled to do so. A great purpose in education should be to implant in every human being, even as a child, the great truth that it is a sin to kill an animal, and that through the killing even of a despised insect, in a certain sense there has been destroyed a worker intended by nature for some useful purpose, the importance of which we often do not, with our limited knowledge, apprehend. Even the lowly housefly, which so often spreads disease, may be useful in consuming all kinds of refuse, and that despised animal, the rat, may be of service, acting as a kind of subterranean scavenger.

Before we kill birds of prey, we should consider the fact that they destroy certain animals, such as field mice, which do harm to agriculture. Let us reflect that the merciful Creator embraces in His love not only ourselves, narrow-minded human beings that we are, but likewise all animals, even the most lowly, though some manifestations in nature would seem to indicate that the Creator showed preference to man above all animals, and favored him in a special way.

According to the holy laws of the old Egyptians, the same punishment after death will await all those who, in their lives, have tortured innocent animals.

Since it is our duty to accept all good teachings, we should also follow strictly one of the wise precepts of Buddha, viz., that we should not do our work simply for the sake of the material reward to be expected from it. To my mind, no man with an idealistic way of thinking, and whose heart is made of flesh and not of stone, does his work and pursues his vocation merely for the money he may get for it. It is certainly a fact that the insatiate ambition of great geniuses, of inventors, poets, and painters, and of the great masters of music, has not been fostered by the hope of gain and the wish for riches. No, these men were spurred on by an irresistible impulse. It really seems as if nature, or divine providence, used such men as instruments to serve their purposes in the interest of the entire human race. Little do these exceptional mortals care for material rewards, and true genius is never held back by the fact that it so seldom obtains the honors and recognition it deserves.

It is a sad truth that laurel wreaths are wound only about the lifeless skulls of these great men, and that by the irony of fate, others, as a rule, enjoy the fruits of their great inventions and not themselves. This we may note, for instance, in the case of the great Viennese composer and genius, Franz Schubert, whose melodies are known all over the world, alleviating and cheering so many of our despondent moments. He remained a poor man all his life. Scarcely one hundred years had passed after his death when a clever Viennese producer of operettes put together a theatrical piece composed of the different melodies of that immortal composer and made more money with it in one evening than that great man had made in years. About a year or two ago, moreover, one of Schubert's kin died in Vienna of starvation, in direst poverty.

The really great men, the great geniuses, do not understand business! Their very nature is contrary to the making of money. There scarcely ever existed one of them who could have accumulated any money. And so it came to be that Mozart was al-ways in straightened circumstances and in debt. At the age of six he sat on the knees of the Empress Maria Theresa in her sumptuous palace at Vienna, and at about thirty-five he was already being con-signed to a poor man's grave in the potter's field, followed by only a few friends as mourners. Van Beethoven always found money for his relatives, but was hard pinched to satisfy his own wants.

Poverty seems to be the sad fate of these great men, for nothing is more alien to their nature than greed and avarice.



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