A blog dedicated to providing quotes by and posts relating to one of the most influential (and quotable!) authors of the twentieth century, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). If you do not know much about GKC, I suggest visiting the webpage of the American Chesterton Society as well as this wonderful Chesterton Facebook Page by a fellow Chestertonian

I also have created a list detailing examples of the influence of Chesterton if you are interested, that I work on from time to time.

(Moreover, for a list of short GKC quotes, I have created one here, citing the sources)

"...Stevenson had found that the secret of life lies in laughter and humility."

-Heretics (1905)

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Great Pessimist.*
Daily News, June 7, 1901

* 'Schopenhauer'. Thomas Bailey Saunders. Adam and Charles Black.

Mr. Bailey Saunders has written a very interesting study of the great father of modern pessimism. He is quite right in saying that the popularity of Schopenhauer at the present day far surpasses the popularity of any of his contemporaries in philosophy. It seems strange that the average man should exhibit so profound a desire to believe that his bread and cheese is valueless and his beer an empty show. But there can be no question, I think, that the influence of Schopenhauer over the present age is vast indeed, and I fancy that if our puritan commercialism and our new politics of violence and vanity could really be dissected, it would be found that at the root of them, as at the root of all evil, is loss of hope. A man must have some real joy in him before he can be a martyr. No high enterprise or great national sacrifice will be possible until we understand some great happiness. Even Schopenhauer must have been happy once- when he laid down his pen after writing his eloquent essay 'The Misery of Life'


Mr. Bailey Saunders is certainly quite right in insisting on one of the great merits of Schopenhauer: that he put more faith in the artist than in the philosopher. It must be added that he himself was much more of an artist than a philosopher. The great popularity of his pessimistic philosophy with the world chiefly consists in the fact that in reading him the average man has the satisfaction of telling himself that he is plunging into the most portentous depths of philosophy; while he has also the pleasure of reading a most brisk and entertaining author. But Schopenhauer's finest passages are purely rhetorical. At the end of his essay on 'The Metaphysics of Love', he describes how amid all the strife and agony of life two lovers look at each other. 'But why so secretly, timidly, and stealthily? Because these lovers are the traitors secretly endeavouring to perpetuate all this distress and drudgery, that otherwise would reach a timely end'. A more dramatic touch in the literary sense it would be difficult to imagine, it has all the energy of some scripture of the devil. But if Schopenhauer asked any sane man to believe that this really was the reason of the shyness of lovers, he was a man simply devoid of any conception of the meaning of fact or falsehood.


Schopenhauer was a poet, and he had all the advantages of that position. The poet may only see a fraction of the universe, but at least it will be a fraction of the real universe, the universe of passion and experience. A philosopher may live in a mere phantom universe, a universe of symbols and generalisations, as painted as the scenery of a pantomime. His stars and spaces are often more artificial, more the work of his own hands, than the elflands of the artist. All this advantage of the realism of poetry Schopenhauer has. But there goes with the mission of the poet one very serious condition. A man may put only a part of himself into piling up millions or building up empires; but he must put the whole of himself into a song. It is the fashion to say that 'art is unmoral'; but in truth it is far more moral than anything else, in so far that the colour of the whole character must pass into its creations. A work of art is like a prayer; no sin must be kept back in it, or it becomes false. Thus, in the case of writers like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or Carlyle, who write philosophy with the impulse of poetry, we gain a right to speak of them personally and morally which we should not have with mere philosophers. To speak personally of Kant or Herbert Spencer would seem as impertinent as to complain of a street because the builder was a drunkard, or of a soap because the inventor was an atheist. But in the case of Schopenhauer, tinging all the heavens with his own tremendous mood, it is inevitable that we should speak personally. And of all men whose souls have influenced the world, Schopenhauer appears to me the most contemptible.


He never seems to have realised that what he conceived to be an audacious photograph of existence was in truth a mere nightmare induced by lack of nerve. 'A thousand pleasures', he quotes, 'are not worth a single torment.' The are not worth it to cowards; but that they are worth it and more to ordinary men, climbing, fighting, and a hundred other things demonstrate. In his most famous essay, 'The Misery of Life', he moans that 'every satisfied wish begets a new one', which seems to me the definition of happiness. But Schopenhauer had not the nervous energy to wish properly, far less to pursue his wish. He conceived, with all the ignorance of an anchorite criticising the world, that men's happiness, if it existed, would consist in the attainment of pleasure, and that effort was merely a heavy price that was paid for it. He did not understand that of all earthly things desire is the most desirable. To this truth even pessimism bears witness; it is not the satisfactions of youth, but its hungers, that the Byronic poet regrets. Schopenhauer positively complains of the fact that the heart is 'a bottomless abyss', as if to find a bottom to it would not be the end of all human hope. In the same way, men speak of the awfulness of the idea of infinite space, as if the discovery of a place where space ended would not be too horrible for the brain to bear.


The whole of Schopenhauer's accusation against existence comes back, therefore, to a mere matter of artistic taste: he hated the stars as some men hate the smell of hawthorn. Change the mental attitude to a manlier and more alert one, and every one of his philosophical inferences becomes inconclusive. 'The present is for ever unsatisfactory, the future uncertain, the past irrevocable'. This he urges as a reason for taking refuge in the cloister of philosophy from the horrors of the will to live. But to a man of heart (as the French say) that the present is unsatisfactory is its glory: if we are never satisfied we are never sated: the words are even derivatively the same. That the future is uncertain is its glory: no one could endure to live in a world in which the future was certain. It is not the false prophets who should be stoned, but the true ones. That the past is irrevocable is its glory: no mountain of marble is so strong as the broken loves and hopes that death has made immortal. But this vision of the richness of life is only given to brave and ordinary men. It would be difficult to conceive a more pitiful figure than is cut by the philosopher striving to preach retreat to soldiers who will not listen, and offering to dry the tears of victims who will not weep.


Another defect which arises from the dominantly-aesthetic character of Schopenhauer's philosophy is his extraordinarily illogical method of argument. The reader is at last quite bewildered by the way in which the pessimistic serpent eats its own tail. Take an instance at random. 'If life itself were a valuable possession and decidedly preferable to non-existence, the gate need not be occupied by such terrible guards as death and its terrors'. Existence must be evil, it seems, because we are kept out of death, which would be our greatest happiness. And why would death be our greatest happiness? Because existence is an evil. In other words, Schopenhauer has to assume that there is a curious kind of diabolical providence in order to prove that there is one. Again, he says: 'But who would persevere in life if death were less frightful?' There are scores of quite painless forms of death; and painless death we have all known for an eternity before our birth. If we shrink from it, it is not because it is frightful, but because it is the end of an experience which we value. It is not a question of who would endure life if death were really tolerable, but of who would fear death if life were really intolerable. Sometimes Schopenhauer makes up for the lack of reasons by sheer bullying. 'It is as clear as day', he vociferates, 'that if each one of us could have previously inspected the gift, we should have declined it'. I wonder how clear day was to Schopenhauer.


When Schopenhauer declares that all good and happiness is an illusion, it is difficult to see what he can mean. Sport or wine or friendship are no more and no less illusions than the toothache. And here, strangely enough, Schopenhauer fails ultimately in imagination. He had not that highest order of imagination which can see the things which surround us on every side with purified and primitive eyes. Had he possessed this he would have felt, as we all dimly feel, that a child unborn offered the chance and risk of so vivid and magical an experience as existence could no more resist taking it than a living child could resist opening a cupboard in which, he was told, were toys of which he could not even dream. He did not realise that the question of whether life contains a preponderance of joy or of sorrow is entirely secondary to the fact that life is an experience of a unique and miraculous character, the idea of missing which would be intolerable if it were for one moment conceivable. He made the old mistake of the sages in conceiving of being as an ancient thing, going on heavily age after age, whereas it and all its ages are one divine and dazzling experiment as dramatic as a display of fireworks

G.K. Chesterton

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