STUDIES ON THE NAPOLEONIC WARS 003
Pessimism: The Ancient and Universal Creed
1. Historical Perspective: Man’s Outlook on History (2)
Pessimism: The Ancient and Universal Creed
History, apart from primitive epics and folk-lore tales, starts with the chronicler; and the chronicler is too often annalistic and barren in his first efforts. He tells us without further comment that “Elon the Zebulonite judged Israel for ten years and died, and was buried in Aijalon in the Country of Zebulon”; or observes, as does the author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “in the year 773 a fiery cross appeared in the heaven after sunset, and wondrous adders were seen in the land of the South Saxons”—which is interesting but not very informative. But the second stage of chronicling, in which notes and remarks begin to be appended to the plain record of events, is not long in coming. Historical perspective has begun when to the bald annalistic record of an unhappy king we find added that “he did evil in the sight of the Lord, and departed not from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin”; and it is still clearer when the Anglo-Saxon chronicler, shaking off his accustomed brevity, bursts out in indignation against the wickedness of his own day. “The Earth bears no corn; you might as well have tilled the sea: the land is all ruined by evil deeds, and it is said openly that Christ and His saints are asleep.” Such comments imply the beginning of reasoning and judgement; the annalist is making himself the exponent of the thought of his nation, and expresses his opinion as to the consequences of a political policy, or a moral degeneracy, of which he disapproves. The individual has begun to generalize on the aspect of his own time, and presently he will do the same on the aspect of times past and even of times to come. For a consideration of today involves in comparison a consideration of yesterday, and probably of tomorrow; and when a man begins consciously to compare yesterday, today, and tomorrow he is constructing for himself an historical perspective. It may be only the perspective of his own nation, or even of his own city, or quite possibly of no more than his own class or caste within that nation or city—Hesiod, Theognis, Aristophanes, Juvenal, had all got class or race perspectives, not general ones. Or he may have a world-perspective like Orosius, or Jean Jacques Rousseau, or Karl Marx, or Mr. H. G. Wells, but a perspective entirely settled and circumscribed by his personal predispositions and theories, rather than by true and unprejudiced survey of all the historical evidence that is available for him. And therefore, in endeavouring to arrive at the historical perspective of any age or period, we must (as I said before) be careful not to take the exceptional man as necessarily the best representative of public opinion, when he sets forth his judgements, and the comparison of his own surroundings with those of previous generations or centuries.
The judgement of the man who moralizes on history may be either Optimistic or Pessimistic: which it may be is settled either by the atmosphere of the moment—the thinker’s nation or class or religion may be faring well or faring ill—or by his personal mentality and character. For there have been Optimists in dark ages and Pessimists in times of prosperity.
On the whole Pessimism is the more ancient and universal creed. Impressed by the tales told us by respected grandfathers, most men have been prone to think (with Horace or Hesiod) that they are themselves a degenerate race. All over the world nations have been content to believe in the “Good Old Times”, the “Golden Age”, which has been lost owing to the perversity of the younger generation. Our ancestors were divine or semi-divine. They walked the earth thirty feet high like the Moses of the Talmud, they lived three hundred, four hundred, seven hundred years. They could, like Homer’s Hector, lift a stone which scarce two of the strongest of modern men straining hard could tear from the soil. They bestrode elephants and used palm-trees as walking-sticks. And the earth on which they dwelt was a more genial clime than ours, which produced three harvests a year, and flowed with milk and honey. By some ancestral fault—because Adam and Eve ate the bitter apple of knowledge, or because Pandora opened the fatal box of plagues and diseases, evil finally came upon the human race, and progressive decay has been its lot. Hesiod formalized the conception for the Western World into the scheme of the Five Ages, each worse than that which preceded it, till mankind had slipped from the Golden Age through those of silver and bronze into the age of iron, in which his own unhappy lot was cast. Passed on by Greece to Rome, and by Rome to the Middle Ages, the conception was as popular fifteen centuries after Christ as it had been ten centuries before his birth. And the more pessimistic spirits finished it off with the Séptima Aetas Mundi, which was to sec Antichrist, the destruction of the world, and the Last Judgement—all due in a very few years. For men, it was said, have grown steadily worse: and each particular generation thinks that its own particular faults are so startling that retribution must come without delay.
This conception of mankind as a dwindling race, doomed to a merited extinction, might be considered as a fit product of the most gloomy and sin-burdened ascetics of the Middle Ages. But it is much older than medieval Christianity: the Greeks had the same idea; so had Buddha, who considered the world of matter a hostile thing, and withdrawal from it into Nirvana as the only desirable solution; so had the old Norsemen with their weird conception of “Ragnarok”, the day of the ending of all things, when gods, heavens, and earth should go up in flames, after the powers of hell and destruction had got loose. And this was a much more grim conception than the Christian Last Judgement—since there the just receive their reward, and only the unjust go down to eternal punishment. But if the universe bursts up, gods and all, what has become of the idea of justice?
The conception of the history of the world as a process of consistent deterioration, from a golden age down to a catastrophe well earned by degenerate mankind, is not a very cheerful or inspiring one to guide the way of life. The most obvious deduction from it is, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”. The average man finds within himself no power to withstand the stream of tendency in which he believes himself carried along toward an unhappy end. He does not even exclaim with Hamlet:
The World is out of joint—O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right.
For how few minds even conceive the idea that it is their duty to stand against the spirit of the times, hard though the task may be. Such minds, of course, there have been in all ages—even in those of chaos and decay, when there was not even a saving religion to promise a reward for resistance to the pressure of an evil world. The Stoics of later Greece and of Roman Imperial times—who, without any faith in the discredited gods of Olympus, stood up to prove that right was right and wrong was wrong, and that the self-respecting man must cling to the right, come what may—were certainly examples of such a type. They lived in a most corrupt and unhappy civilization, their way was certain to be difficult and dangerous, but they were ready to walk in it on first principles and whatever the consequences. Stoics are never numerous—and have been accused of being self-conscious and pedantic by their unsympathizing contemporaries. Nevertheless, they merit our respect.
Their lot was much harder than that of other Pessimists, who like them believed in the degeneracy and wickedness of the world, but stood out against its influence because they were supported by the inspiration of a religion which promised salvation to the individual, though it prophesied destruction for the world. Among them I can include the Buddhist—though his idea of salvation was what seems to most of us a very peculiar one, absorption into the Godhead without the survival of personal identity. But to the Christian or the Mohammedan pessimist the protest against the evil world took the simpler shape of the duty of saving one’s own soul—incidentally the souls of others if possible, but primarily one’s own. This explains the mentality of the early ascetics; St. Simeon Stylites on the top of his 60-foot pillar, or St. Anthony the Hermit in the depths of the Theban desert, eschewed all touch with the wicked world, because they felt themselves unable to convert it, though they might by untold austerities macerate their own sinful bodies so far as to establish an ad misericordiam appeal for pardon from a just but jealous God. This form of Pessimism was as self-regarding as that of the Stoics, and less justifiable, since it ignored the immensity of God’s mercy, and thought only of his omniscience and justice. But it was certainly much less amiable than the asceticism of St. Francis, who with no less profound a belief in the wickedness of the world was able to think of the souls of other men as well as of his own. Nay, he could spare a kindly thought for bird and beast as well as for human sinners. But Francis of Assisi, though an ascetic, was an Optimist, and that makes all the difference between him and Simeon Stylites on his pillar.
To obtain a deluxe leatherbound edition of STUDIES ON THE NAPOLEONIC WARS, subscribe to Castalia History.