Ancient and Modern Fatalism
MUCH has recently been written of the fatalism of modern democracy. Mr. Bryce has noticed it in the United States, and Charles Pearson embodied the spirit of modern fatalism very happily in his simile of men being obliged ultimately to drift with the stream, however vigorously they might try to retard it.
Yet fatalism is as old as the world itself, and if the Northern and Occidental races have not cared to he called fatalists, they have generally been so at heart, while the fatalistic creed of Calvinism has been adopted by some of the least contemplative and most adventurous peoples of Europe.
For “ fatalism ” is a much-abused word in so far as it has been taken to signify a purely passive attitude toward life and action. We are all fatalists at heart, whether we believe that the cosmic process tends to ultimate good or not, and a deep conviction of this need not necessarily paralyze our activities.
Homer knew this, and has often been unjustly blamed for the inconsistency of a theology that subordinated its gods to the Fates. Yet in our own lives we act as the Greek deities and demigods did ; we put forth all our force in the struggle, knowing that the prize is not within our reach, and that we may never attain our goal. We see our heroes bite the dust in the supreme moments of their endeavor, and cheerfully recognize the vanity of all endeavor (if regarded only as a means to an end). We envy rather than pity those who have so fallen, and thus unconsciously avow that it is for endeavor itself that we live, and not mainly for the fruit thereof. The failure to see this aspect of life has propagated many misconceptions. Fatalism, we are told, is pessimistic, and makes men unhappy. Happiness cannot be enjoyed without a sense of permanence, and the fatalist can never feel this. But why should he assume that happiness is the chief aim of life ? Prosperous acquisition does not satisfy mankind so well as adventurous pioneering. What we all want is our opportunity, —the opportunity of starting out on life thoroughly equipped for the enterprise. When we have known what it is to live and to be spent in our different ways, we need not complain if we are prematurely put away in the cupboard, like Omar Khayyàm’s chessmen. Others can and will do our work ; it was only our business to strive, and not to shirk any of it. It may even be an enviable lot to die in the full blast of the conflict, instead of living long enough to remember how much has been left undone.
If all this be fatalism, it is the implicit philosophy of those whose names are best remembered by the race ; nor is it the philosophy of academic decadents.
The real seekers after happiness, and consequently the real pessimists, are the Buddhists and the Oriental ascetics, or even our own modern disciples of Schopenhauer. “ You shall escape fate,” they tell us, “ by a slow suicide, and mutilate your faculties to insure yourself against the pains of unsatisfied desire.”
Not so thought the great fatalists of Europe, from Julius Cæsar to Machiavelli or Napoleon Bonaparte ; they purposed to drain life to the full, and not to look too curiously into what might, lie before them. A similar attitude well becomes modern democracies. Even if they fall short of their aims, they will have fulfilled their being ; and attainment is no less vain than effort, for behind both lies la grandeur du rien.