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HOPE AND DESPAIR
THE same soldier, who has become my war-time "god-child," writes to me again:
"I experience an ineffable delight in remaining the average man and in professing emptiness. I felt a great peace descend within me on the day when I resigned myself to the common lot, in other words, to ignorance and death. I have found life by renouncing it and, now that I am no longer anything, I feel rich indeed. Do not tempt me in the direction of that subtle spiritual vanity which constitutes one of the most formidable obstacles to the final liberation from self. Proud I certainly was and I am still only too much so; but we cannot extract virtues otherwise than from our vices. More ardently than when I embraced the phantom of individual superiority, I stretch my arms towards homogeneous equality, towards the fullness of vacancy. . ."
He is right; but he is thinking, here, with the eastern lobe of his brain, the Asiatic lobe; and the philosophy of this lobe counsels only inaction and renunciation, the "enchantment of the disenchanted," as Renan used to say, or rather the satisfaction of despair. Certainly all we that see, all that we feel and all that we know pledges us to this despair, which our meditations -- above all, those of this same Asiatic lobe -- may, for that matter, render very spacious and as beautiful, almost as habitable, as hope. But what do we know, as compared with what we do not know? We are ignorant of all that goes before and of all that comes after us, in a word, of the whole universe. Our despair, which appears at first the last word and the last effort of wisdom, is therefore based upon what we know, which is nothing, whereas the hope of those whom we believe to be less wise can be based upon what we do not know, which is everything.
Moreover, if we would be quite just, there is more than one reason for hoping which we will not recall here; let us confess therefore that in this nothing which we know there exists naught but despair and that hope can lie only in that everything which we do not know. But, instead of listening only to our eastern lobe, which counsels us to accept this inactive ignorance and to bury our lives therein, is it not more reasonable at the same time to set our western lobe to work, the lobe which seeks to discover that everything? It is possible that here too, when all is said, it will find despair; but it is unlikely, for we cannot imagine a world which would be merely an act of despair. Now, if the world is not an act of despair, nothing that exists in it has reason to despair. In any case and in the meanwhile, this search will doubtless permit us to hope as long as the world exists.
One of the most dangerous temptations that assail him who scrutinizes nature and who sees, as he advances in his enquiries, that her mysteries become more and more numerous, reaching forth unendingly in every direction, is the temptation to grow discouraged by the impossible task and to abandon it. He drops his weapons. On the last slope of life particularly, he is too much inclined to resign himself, to go no farther forward, to make no further effort, to fall into a humour of saying, "What is the good?" and to drop asleep and learn nothing more, since he has learnt that he will never know anything.
He is already sensible of this wish to surrender at discretion when he considers the humblest, the lowliest of the sciences.
What will it be when he attempts to embrace them all? The mind goes astray, becomes dizzy, asks to close its eyes. It must not close them. That would be the basest treachery that man could commit. We have no other thing to do in this life of ours than to seek to know where we are. We find no other reason for our existence; we have no other duty. Not to know is merely vexatious; no longer to seek to know is the supreme, the irremediable misfortune, the unpardonable desertion.
Yet, without renouncing, it is not well that we should feed ourselves upon too petty illusions. We should always keep before our eyes certain verities which put us in our place. There is no doubt that we shall never know everything; and so long as we do not know everything we shall be just as though we knew nothing. It is extremely possible, as the Rig-Veda suggests, that God Himself, or the first cause, does not know everything. It is equally possible that the universe has not yet, in any of its parts, become conscious of itself; that it knows not whence it came nor whither it is going, what it was nor what it will be, what it has accomplished nor what it is seeking to accomplish; and, on the other hand, it is probable that, if it has not yet learnt these things, it will never learn them, seeing that, as I have already said, there is no reason why it should be able, in the infinity of time which will come after us, to do what it has not been able to do in the infinity of time which went before.
If there be a consciousness of the universe, a God, He knows all that He should know, or He will never know it. And, if He knows it, why has He done what He has done, which cannot lead to anything, seeing that He might already have led us where we ought to go? Why did He not prefer nothingness, or at least that which we call nothingness, the only form of lasting happiness, immovable, incontestable and comprehensible?
We could understand, if need were, an immobile, immutable, eternal universe, a finished universe; but we cannot understand a universe in movement, or one, at least, of which all the parts that we see are incessantly in movement, evolving through space and time, a universe hurling itself at a dizzy rate of speed towards an end which it will never attain, since it has not yet attained it.
We may say, to console ourselves, that all despair comes only from the limited nature of our purview; but it is fair to add that our purview limits all hope in the same way.Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.