Confessions of an Idealist

— In One of those hours of expansion that come when two old comrades sit together in leisurely quiet, my friend E—indulged in certain confessions which, now that he is gone from this stage of human action, I have a mind to repeat, at least in part, for the sake of the human interest attaching to any sincere record of personal experience.

“I know that I have sometimes been pitied for a poor devil with his head forever in the clouds, and I admit I have hurt my toes badly, at times, in stumbling against the stones of hard fact in my path. Yet have I not had a clearer vision of my far-off goal than if I had kept my eyes bent on the few feet of road just before me? I was born with that thirst for happiness which doubtless is native to all human beings, but in greatly varying intensity; and I have been too rational to lose myself in the pursuit of trivial satisfactions, too passionate to content myself in mere ease. If the desires of my pleasure-loving nature had been more fully gratified, I should have been a different man from the one I am. Circumstances, as you know, my friend, — lack of wealth and of that greater boon, health, — have restricted my activities and denied me much that others enjoy. What has been left me is the life of ideas and emotions. Knowledge is half of life; feeling completes the round of it. George Sand said that it is a misfortune to possess too great a supply of active ideas; and I say yes, if the Summum Bonum consist, for any man, in the avoidance of pain, I counsel him not to think, above all not to feel. But against George Sand’s irony I set off the serious judgment of another French writer, who maintains that our finest adventures are our thoughts; and in my own experience I estimate among my keenest delights visions of great truths, enthusiasms for great principles, and admirations of men nobler than myself. Yes, yes, no doubt I have suffered sharply in these same fibres of the soul; discouragement with the blindness and apathy of mankind, cold disappointment of hopes, and hot indignation at triumphant wrong, — these are a reality of pain for the lover of his kind.

“I have made mistakes and committed follies, through fancying that others must see things with my eyes and feel them with my heart. Heaven be thanked that when I found I had trusted men too much and credited them with more good than was in them, I did not try to mend the matter by distrusting the rest of the world and disbelieving in all goodness. Experience is a dead, dumb thing, as our own poet says, and the victory ’s in believing. In days past I have spent some pity on myself for my mistakes; now I can smile at the blunders and their consequences. What if the fools and rogues outnumber the good and wise — as yet? A thousand or two years in the education of the race, — what are they in His sight?

‘If we could wait! The only fault’s with Time;
All men become good creatures — but so slow! ’

Yes, I am an idealist, in life and art; for me the actual does not express the whole, the real. The actual, the particular, is no more than the partial and temporary, ever being done away with to make room for the coming Better and Best. This is a true saying in art because true in life. Study the actual, artists all; but be sure you read between the lines, for if you stick at the letter your work will avail little to teach or give joy to men.

“You do not mistake me, and think that I pose before the world or you as myself an ideal, the admirable image of what man may be: that truly would be the finest stroke of self-irony, self-confutation! Yet it is truth to say that if, through weakness of the flesh, I have often been laggard to answer the call upon my life of those ideals I myself had placed as lords over it, yet I have never been unheeding or faithless. And but for sight of the heights above that I must reach, where should I now stand? It is the vision of the invisible, of the Summa Veritas, the Summa Pulchra, that alone has upheld my feeble, faltering steps. I have lived, not slumbered with folded hands; and, in my measure, as a human being should. In my youth I was hungry for joy, and yet fastidious, inclined to grumble at the fare set before me; but now I say grace over my life: For what I have received, Lord, make me truly thankful.