What Is Pessimism?

— We have heard of commentators darkening with many words the subject they set out to illumine. I trust that no such misfortune is to result from the labors of the Browning societies in this country and in England, but a reference to the poet in a recent article in The Atlantic shows so singular a misconception about him that I am led to think the author of the above-mentioned paper may have missed the poet’s plain meaning through too little attention to the verse itself, and too much to the superabundance of comment upon it. To class the keen-sighted, but large-minded and genial-hearted Browning among the pessimists seems a mistake hard to account for to one who has found in his hopeful philosophy a greater encouragement than almost any other single writer, teacher, or preacher of today has to give. I confess to being skeptical as to the genuineness of much that calls itself pessimism, or, rather, as to the existence of many thorough-going pessimists. I question the propriety of classing Pascal among pessimists called “ religious,” for to my mind the ideas of religion and pessimism are incompatible, — even religion as Pascal understood it. It were truer to say of him that, in the struggle of his intellect between faith and undermining doubt, his mind at times lost hold on religion, and then, for him, the universe was darkened, and chaos came again.

If to “ recognize that in this world sorrow outbalances joy ” be pessimism, then I take it that the majority of persons past their youth, who have minds to think with and hearts to feel with, are pessimists. But such recognition of the fact of life does not settle the question whether it is worth living. Browning says, in the person of the pagan poet Cleon, “ Life ’s inadequate to joy, as the soul sees it,” — that is, in unalloyed fullness of perfection ; yet the pagan could imagine a state of being above the present in which the “ joy-hunger ” should be satisfied, if Zeus the All-Wise were the All-Loving too.

It seems to me that the true pessimist, like the true skeptic, is nothing if not thorough-going, and that to be one requires a greater hardness of head and coldness of heart than belong, thank Heaven ! to many. A genuine pessimist should go out and drown himself, as the practical outcome of his belief ; if he does not, it is because, in spite of theory, he contrives to find life tolerable,— and if for him, why may it not be for his fellows ? The formula of pessimism is, or ought to be, that this is the worst of all possible worlds, and therefore let us each and all get out of it. But men sometimes manage to hold a creed without realizing its consequences in their imagination. The Calvinists did so with regard to their cruel doctrine. In proportion as it was vividly real to them, individual lives were burdened with heavy sadness ; yet there was a loophole for hope to shine through upon the soul of the conscientious Calvinist, for he might be assured of his own election to salvation, and for those of his fellowcreatures who were not visibly in a state of grace there were always the “ uncovenanted ” mercies of the Lord to trust to.

Schopenhauer, the “ great apostle of pessimism,” so far as he was sincere and consistent, was so in virtue of his coldness of heart, the “ luminous selfishness which guided him through life.” He was never guilty of really associating with anybody, we are told. But granting the existence of a few convinced and more or less consequent contemners of the world and mankind, I think it remains true that pessimism is mostly a theory in the air, as unsubstantial and harmless as many other theories that men have manufactured in all ages of the world. To return to the point whence I started, — that Browning, of all men, should be called a pessimist seems wonderful, most wonderful, and yet again wonderful. To recognize the force of circumstance and the fatality of chance in the life of man, the irretrievableness of his mistakes, his capacity for suffering, the possibility of his deepest joys transforming themselves into his most poignant griefs, the frustration of hope and the heartsickness of unfulfilled desire, “ infinite passion and the pain of finite hearts that yearn,” — to see and feel all this does not make a man a pessimist. To put into a word the diametrically opposite view I take of Browning, it seems to me that, a few great names apart, no poet with so wide and deep a knowledge of human nature and life has so uniformly maintained a tone of steadfast and lofty hope. His world is not made up of saints and heroes, but of struggling, sinning, sorrowing men and women ; yet in his creed they have always the power to erect themselves above themselves. Many of them find victory even in defeat, joy in the midst of pain, and honor, faith, and love worth, even in this life, more than easy-going comfort and the satisfaction of selfish passion. The confidence of Browning’s tone contrasts with the uncertain utterance of most of his brother poets since Wordsworth. Even the latter spoke, as it were, from the lonely height of abstract contemplation, while Browning’s voice comes up from amidst the throng of active human life. He says of it, —

“ This world, — it means intensely, and means good ;
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.”

And the facts of existence which move the shallower thinker to lamentation and doubt, namely, the mutability of all things and the disappointment of hope, stir and stimulate Browning ; so that he cries, of this “ old woe of the world, tune to whose rise and fall we live and die,” —

“ Rise with it, then ! Rejoice that man is hurled
From change to change unceasingly,
His soul’s wings never furled. ”

One of the main articles of the poet’s creed is the divine nature and power of love, a present possession, which has also the capacity of infinite development.

“ Knowledge means
Ever-renewed assurance by defeat
That somehow victory is still to reach ;
But love is victory, the prize itself.”

The infinite nature of human spirit, Browning tells us again and again, is the source of man’s earthly sorrows and joys, his aspiration and progress, present imperfection and ultimate perfectibility.

“ Shall I doubt that Thy power can fill
The heart that Thy power can expand ? ”

he cries, and with the faith of an old Hebrew prophesies by the mouth of the musician, Abt Vogler,—

“ There shall never be one lost good ; what was shall live as before ;
The evil is naught, is null, is silence implying sound,
All we have willed, or hoped, or dreamed, of good shall exist ;
Not its likeness, but itself ; no beauty, nor good, nor power,
Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the melodist
When eternity confirms the conception of an hour.”

And over the corpse of a wretch whose life has been apparent failure, the poet muses thus : —

“ My own hope is a sun will pierce
The thickest cloud earth ever stretched ;
That after Last returns the First,
Though a wide compass round be fetched ;
That what began best can’t end worst,
Nor what God blest once prove accurst.”

He reasons from the love in the heart of man to the infinite Love, and upon that he bases his large and firm-fixed hope : —

“ Do I find love so full in my nature, God’s ultimate gift,
That I doubt His own love can compete with it ? — here the parts shift ? ”

The whole stuff of Browning’s thought is indicated by these citations. The pessimist, the man who despairs, looks around over the wide field of the world, but his view is limited by its horizon ; he sees no forces at work in it but those called natural, and does not know that it is being ploughed and tilled by the great Husbandman for the future harvest ; his eye observes all the obvious misery of human existence, and pierces low enough to discover the roots of bitterness beneath the smooth surface of much that seems to be happiness, but he has not inquired deeply enough into the nature of man himself rightly to apprehend or solve the problem of his destiny.