The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review, October 1918
Every one of us has a philosophy of some kind—that is to say, we have some attitude toward the world around us. Some of us may become conscious of this attitude, others may not, but whether explicit or implicit it is present in our actions. Because we are not reasoning machines, our philosophy must be determined by our different temperaments. As our outlook on life changes with our changing moods, so must our philosophy. The worship of high ideals, of the Greek Trinity, the Good, the Beautiful and the True forms in our most exalted moods an inspiration that nothing else can equal. At times the pursuit of the Truth is the most fascinating of all pursuits. She delights us even though she eludes our grasp, while, now and again, Action-like, we gain a fleeting glimpse of her in all her primeval beauty. Then at other times, she appears rather as an elusive Maiden full of whims and vagaries and sometimes she seems to glimmer in the distance like a Will o' the Wisp only to lure us on to destruction. "Why strive for Truth," asks the Cynic-self, "when future generations will laugh at all your feeble struggles? What is humanity? A weak race that crawls between the earth and sky—one that has agreed in its feeble, futile way that the individual who helps to prolong its miserable existence shall be extolled as among the world's heroes. So poor deluded creatures, swollen with wind and the rank mist of emotional idealism set out to help this crawling race. They are despised and rejected while they are alive and when they are dead, this miserable race twists the ideals they lived and died for into horrible shapes, and sets them in a corner of its dwelling place to be mouthed at and bowed down to by the generations that follow. Better to have no crazy idealists with their dreams of worlds grown greater and more wonderful!"
There is certainly something to be said for the Cynic's point of view. There is abundant ground for pessimism in the world to-day. When we realize how little it takes to destroy a man with all his boasted intellecutal powers—a bullet, a piece of shell and it is all over—human life seems such a puny, useless thing. Yet who among us, if he knew positively that the sacrifice of his small life would bring peace and harmony to the world, without any hateful spirit of page 34 militarism raging in it, would not willingly give it? Yet thousands, nay millions are sacrificing their lives without this assured certainty, but only on the vague chance that some day men may learn that the true strength of a nation does not consist in the multitude of arms and amount of territory it possesses, but in freedom and progressive democratic ideals. That is just where the shoe pinches in every walk of life. We have to strive on the chance that we may succeed!
"Life is act and not to do is death
But to work in vain . . .
Is bitterest penalty."
But how can we know that we work in vain? It is just this element of chance that adds zest to our struggles. The Pessimist may give up the problems of life as too complex for him, the Cynic may declare it to be nothing but a grim joke played on the world by a cruel Fate. For the Optimist the beauty of life lies in activity, in fervent striving after some ideal. To be a philosopher, in the true sense of the word, a lover of wisdom, means to be always delving in the mines of knowledge and of experience, and never tiring in the search even if the discovery of no sparkling diamonds rewards the labour. Its spirit, that of Wonder, Curiosity which forms the inner creative force, makes life a kind of noble play. We are not creatures whom blind irresistible forces drive onwards down an inevitable pathway. If we have chains, they are what we ourselves help to forge. The world is what we make it. Acting in the intellectual life means that we retain a critical attitude toward things. This tends at first to pessimism. So many philosophers, so many diverse systems, it seems as if thought moves round always in the same old circle and comes back again to the same old problems.
"Each one raises his own temple to his own god," says Royce, "declares that he, the first of men possessed the long-sought-for truth and undertakes to initiate the world into his own mysteries."
Hence so many ruined temples with the shattered fragments of forgotten gods! A deeper study, however, reveals an underlying unity—the unity of attitude and purpose. The Philosopher looks at life with all hopes and fears, doubts and courage, with a question on his lips. Philosophy teaches nothing at all if not how to live beneath the surface of mundane things, and see the inner meaning of life's problems. It is we who set the puzzles for ourselves to solve. We often play cat and mouse with our dearest other self in the process. We become critics of our own emotions and passions. Yet any solution to the problem of life must involve a unity of these opposing selves. Any conclusion which separates reason and emotion is strained and unnatural. When we realize this, we grow less confident, we are not so sure that we can spin the world out of reason. It is impossible (to use Hegel's phrase) to ignore the holy and tender web of the human affections." It cannot be done, even were we to wish to do so, for emotion and not reason is the driving force behind our actions. Aristotle saw this and showed his wisdom by identifying pleasure with activity. When we grow old and that trickling stream, instead of a leaping, sparkling fountain, then we many call the world a fraud, our youthful hopes a lying dream, and say we are disillusioned. "Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity." The old (I do not mean old in years alone) think they "see through" life, and settle down, believing they have solved its mysteries, but have they? Those visions grave and glorious, are they not the reality rather than the dull drabness of the world-weary Pessimist? Life page 35 with all its inextricable tangles is full of mysterious beauty. The phenomenon of growth which begins to stir in Nature in the spring -time fills us with wonder. The unfolding buds, the sweet, fresh scents, the pink-eared lambs that frisk in the meadow are the embodiment of that inspiring message which Spring always brings with it. It is the sprit of youth. Growth and change of progress march together, onward, ever onward. If we do not wish to run behind for ever crying "Stop, stop!" we must march too, aye, and run before, and fly above and around, for in youth our dreams "fire-winged with hope, may fill all eternity and flame to heaven."
It is impossible, however, to soar among the clouds all the time. To do this is to become a mere visionary, and a false separation arises between the real world and the ideals of our everyday life to the underlying principles governing them. Thus may we seek to apply the ideals born in our exalted moments to all parts of our daily life. It is quite true this is difficult and perhaps the social conditions under which we live make it impossible. For instance, the ideal is that our daily toil should involve pleasurable activity—it should be the work we would choose before all others. But very few of us are in that happy position. Here in the University one would think that such an ideal would receive full expression. Work should be undertaken for the work's sake, it should be and end in itself and not a means alone. The universities to-day, however, betray their old ideal and instead of enjoyment in intellectual activity, there is a fevered rush to pass examinations. Education is looked on as the means of gaining better positions and higher salaries. They place a legend on our staircase for us, and teach us that the true rendering is "Aurum magis sapientia desiderandum!" Until this false ultilitarian aim is swept away, until knowledge is pursued for the sake of knowledge, education will do us no real good.
But if I stray too far into the field of social evils, I may never end. My aim, as far as there is any aim in these somewhat incoherent musing, is rather to show the necessity for an optimistic out look on life. It seems inevitive to the positives aspect, form the Everlasting No to the Everlasting Yea. Daily intercourse with our fellows, the ties of home and friendship, the everyday troubles and worries and small problems that arise in our own life and in the lives of others with whom our affections are bound up, prevent a narrow individualistic view. We dare not be pessimists in the face of Life's problems, we must be optimists. To passively accept Life is not to live in the fullest sense of word. If humanity is a weak and crawling race, we have to remember we are part of that same race, and it is only weak and crawling when the individuals who constitute it are blind to its possibilities. And if we fail—what then—we, like Endymion, have taken a sporting chance—and lost.
"I judge it better indeed
To seek in life as now I know I sought
Some fair impossible love which slays our life
Some fair ideal raised too high for man
And, failing, to grow mad or cease to be
Then to decline, as they do who have found
Borad-paunched content and weal and happiness
And so an end."