Is the Average Human Life a Rather Limited Affair?
[Because the response to the human condition varies so widely due to differences in temperament, circumstances and beliefs, it is very hard to generalize about it with any hope of agreement. However, there are many people who can strongly endorse one or another of the many gloomy pronouncements that are part of our cultural heritage.]
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation be safely built.
Bertrand Russell (from A Free Man’s Worship, 1903)
Pessimism has been Christianity’s great strength, and the reason for its survival. The concept of this world as a wilderness, and of human life as short and brutish, fits the circumstances of most people most of the time. The contrary proposition—that earthly life can be satisfying within its own dimensions and on its own terms, leads to such mental strain and confusion as to be scarcely tenable, other than briefly and artificially. The kingdom of heaven in heaven may be a dubious proposition, but through the centuries it has appealed both to sophisticates like St Augustine and Pascal, and to all the simple-hearted who, legitimately disappointed with their lives here on earth, pin their hopes in a future beatitude beyond the grave. To proclaim a kingdom of heaven on earth, on the other hand, is both deceptive and intrinsically absurd.
It’s funny that the books lie so horribly about it! To read the books one would think that old age was a lovely interlude between the pleasures of this life and the blaze of Beatitude. The books represent Old Age seated in a fine old comfortable dignified chair, with venerable snowy locks and fine, wise, thoughtful eyes, a gentle but profound smile, and God-knows-what-and-all! But the reality is quite other. Old Age is a tangle of Disappointment, Despair, Doubt, Dereliction, Drooping, Debt, and Damnable Deficiency and everything else that begins with a D. Avoid it!
Hilaire Belloc (letter to a Mrs. Herbert)
Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that happen to a man.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Matthew Arnold (from his poem Dover Beach)
Civilization is, at least in part, about pretending that things are better than they are.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
This world can be made beautiful again by beholding it as a battlefield. When we have defined and isolated the evil thing, the colours come back into everything else. When evil things have become evil, good things, in a blazing apocalypse, become good. There are some men who are dreary because they do not believe in God; but there are many others who are dreary because they do not believe in the devil. The grass grows green again when we believe in the devil, the roses grow red again when we believe in the devil.
G. K. Chesterton
Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. The ‘scientific proof’ that you are right may not be clear before the day of judgment (or some stage of being which that expression may serve to symbolize) is reached. But the faithful fighters of this hour, or the beings that then and there will represent them, may then turn to the faint-hearted, who here decline to go on, with words like those which Henry IV greeted the tardy Crillon after a great victory had been gained: ‘Hang yourself, brave Crillon! we fought at Arques, and you were not there.’
William James (from Is Life Worth Living?)
It is very dangerous to go into eternity with possibilities which one has oneself prevented from becoming realities. A possibility is a hint from God.
Some Thoughts about the Human Condition
A man must have grown old and lived long in order to see how short life is.
One doesn’t appreciate the vile insufficiency of this world till one has nearly done with it.
Enough we live—and if a life,
With large results so little rife,
Though bearable, seem hardly worth
This pomp of worlds, this pain of birth.
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by!
Epitaph on W. B. Yeats’ tombstone
Every Night and every Morn
Some to Misery are Born;
Every Morn and every Night,
Some are born to Sweet Delight;
Some are born to Sweet Delight,
Some are born to Endless Night.
The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible.
Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see.
I defy anyone to imagine an environment more exquisitely designed to provide us with opportunities for spiritual growth than this life of ours.
M. Scott Peck
Human existence must be a kind of error. . . it may be said of it, ‘it is bad today and every day it will get worse, until the worst of all happens.’
Roughly speaking, Schopenhauer maintained that life is unreasonable. The intellect, if it could be impartial, would tell us to cease; but a blind partiality, an instinct quite distinct from thought, drives us on to take desperate chances in an essentially bankrupt lottery.
G. K. Chesterton
Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed.
The enjoyments of this life are not equal to its evils.
Pliny The Elder
In the world, you will only find tribulation; but take courage, I have overcome the world.
Jesus of Nazareth
O, how full of briars is this working-day world!
As You Like It (Rosalind)
Life is seldom as unendurable as, to judge by the facts, it logically ought to be.
No situation, however wretched it seems, but has some sort of comfort attending it.
Nothing begins, and nothing ends,
That is not paid with moan;
For we are born in other’s pain,
And perish in our own.
The preponderance of pain over pleasure is the cause of our fictitious morality and religion.
Old age has the last word: the purely naturalistic look at life, however enthusiastically it may begin, is sure to end in sadness.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As Chimney sweepers, come to dust.
The tragedy of life is not so much what men suffer, but rather what they miss.
One must choose in life between boredom and suffering.
Madame de StaŽl
The slow compromise, or even surrender, of our fondest hopes is a regular feature of normal human life.
Lester L. Havens
One need only remind oneself of all that we expect from life to see how very strange it is, and to arrive at the conclusion that man has found his way into it by mistake and does not really belong there.
The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.
All’s Well That Ends Well (1st Lord)
What a queer thing life is! So unlike anything else, if you see what I mean.
P. G. Wodehouse
This world is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel.
Comedy and humour are among the most autumnal fruits of the human understanding, as distinct from tragedy which any teenager can comprehend.
William St Clair
The world itself is but a large prison, out of which some are daily led to execution.
Sir Walter Raleigh
The real world is a place I’ve never felt comfortable in.
“You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.”
Oliver Edwards (on meeting Samuel Johnson after a church service)
Perhaps the most despairing cry of the pessimistic mind is that the world is never quite as bad as it ought and should be for intellectual purposes.
Will you sit down with me? and we two will rail against our mistress the world and all our misery.
Jaques (to Orlando)
Life is ten percent what you make it and ninety percent how you take it.
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