The Eternal Life
COME, dear friend, sit down here by the open fire. It was cold and penetrating out there at the burial; — come, warm your hands, and let us talk of the companion we have lost. How often he sat with me here through the long winter evenings, and brightened my dusky library with his genial humor and good cheer! We shall not hear his voice again. I cannot express how deeply I am stricken by this loss, — I know only that I shall never again sit here without grieving that our friend’s life, with all its sweetness and inner beauty, was so short. Do you remember that summer morning when you met him here for the first time ? Who thought that the November day of final parting would come so soon ? Will you not sit down and talk with me ? Why do you hesitate ?
Ah, I understand,—I see it all in your clouded eyes and brow. Your eyes say that though we are in perfect accord on every practical question, yet our ways part here. You do hope to see our friend again in the time to come. When the minister beside the open grave promised a happy meeting yonder, I saw you bend your head as if the preacher spoke the language of your heart. I thought I had mistaken you; now I see that I was right and that my words must have wounded you. I know you must recoil as if from an atheist who, without creed or belief of his own, seeks to destroy your faith in immortality. You look on me as a man of science who cares for naught that he cannot see and touch and weigh and measure — to whom eternal life is an empty tale. Is it not strange what close friends two men can be who yet are strangers in their deepest thoughts ?
But come — I cannot let you go now until you have heard my defense. I am neither skeptic nor atheist, and I believe in eternal life. —Before this wood fire has burned out, you shall know me better. We shall not convince each other, but we owe a better mutual understanding to the memory of our friend. It is not surprising that you mistook me for one of those who, in the pride of modern science, have only ridicule, or, at best, indifference, for every thought of a beyond. All about us, indeed, we see the men with a scientific view of the world and the men with a religious view of the world in two sharply separated camps. The scientist may attend church, but his religion is an empty function; it does not penetrate his life. And the churchman may gain all knowledge, and yet the scientific view of the world does not shape his universe. It seems as if science and religion could no longer be harmonized. And yet, my friend, I feel that they belong together: the deepest truth of science and the most profound religion are compatible.
It is true I am a man of science. Here in this library it hardly needs to be declared. The microscopes at the desk tell the tale, and every book on the shelves affirms if. It is my passion and my delight to throw my little energy into the search for the laws which control this universe of matter and the life of the mind. The laws of the physical and of the psychical world impress me daily more and more by their wonderful clearness and their majestic power. Science does not mean to me the answer to questions of curiosity; it is to me not a mass of disconnected information, but the certainty that there is no change in this universe, no motion of an atom, and no sensation in a consciousness, which does not come and go absolutely in accordance with natural laws, — the certainty that nothing can exist outside of the gigantic mechanism of causes and effects. Necessity moves the stars in the sky, and necessity moves the emotions in my mind. No miracle can break these laws, can push a single molecule from its path, or create a sensation in a mind, when the body does not work, when the brain no longer functions.
I see by the compression of your lips, my friend, and the impatient play of your fingers that I am confessing just what you suspected. Does not—I read the question in your face — does not all this entail the admission that there is no God and no immortality, that the physical universe is the whole of reality, and that in the millions of years to come no mind will ever awake when once the body is the prey of worms ? But I did not say that this was my last word; you heard my first word only. Too many stop here, because they take the challenge for the fight, but you and I must go on.
Science! How easily is its great mission misunderstood! How often scored by its opponents for claims which it does not make, how often by its own friends pushed forward to a ground where it must fail altogether and disastrously! To honor science means to respect its limitations: science is not and cannot be, and ought never to try to be, an expression of ultimate reality. When science seeks to be a philosophy, it not only oversteps its rights, but weakens at the same time its own position. Every one who feels a lack of inspiration in this mass of dead material substances begins then to look out for small exceptions in the realm of nature, and rejoices in every case whereof science is still unable to explain the physical or mental facts; he hopes to find supernatural signs of a better reality in the gaps of the causal world. The belief in our freedom and responsibility and God’s almightiness seems then to depend upon the shortcomings of the scientist, and must go in fear of every new scientific discovery. But science is then the first to suffer in this conflict, as the needs of the heart prove stronger than all the doctrines of the schools, and all the proud theories fall asunder when life demands its own. And yet, believe me, this conflict can never arise if the meaning and purpose of science is rightly interpreted.
Science is an instrument constructed by human will in the service of human purposes. It is a valuable, reliable, and indispensable instrument; but it is, like any instrument, an artificial construction which has meaning only in view of its purpose. In doing our life’s work, in fulfilling our duties, we have to act, and our actions deal with the things that surround us. It is a chaos, that world of things, in which we cannot act if we do not bring order into it. I must know what the thing in my hand will do if I handle it; how it will change. If I bring it in contact with other things, will it move, or burn, or melt; will it change color or make a noise; will it hurt me, or will it feed me; will it blossom, or will it explode ? What we have to expect from the object, we call the effect; and that which we have in hand then becomes the cause. In this way the scientist connects the things of this chaotic world in an orderly system of causes and effects which follow one another; and, as he can do his work only if he takes for granted that the end can be reached, he considers the world of objects as a system in which everything must be understood as the effect of causes. The scientist thus cannot reach his goal save in shaping and moulding and transforming the whole world in thought till everything can be understood as a part of such a chain of causes and effects. It sounds surprising, and yet this postulated system is the only universe which the scientist studies.
This universe is no longer the original experience; the things of the world had to be changed over and over again till the human intellect could form a connected system out of the chaos. For the burning wood I see here, the chemist substitutes chemical molecules; for the chair my hand touches, the physicist posits trillions of atoms; for the movement of this spark in the fireplace, he calculates innumerable components; for its red light, he uses ether waves that are dark; and for the sound of my voice, air waves that are silent. Everywhere the scientist substitutes something else for the real experience, and yet he finds that only by such substitution can he determine beforehand what will happen; only by such transformations of reality can he construct a system of causes and effects, and thus foresee the changes of the things. Whatever serves this purpose of causal connections we call scientific truth, and every progress in the history of science has been a new success in changing the world of things over into a chain of effects and causes, which have reality merely in the abstraction of the scientist.
I know, my friend, that to-day you are not in the mood to follow such dry disputations, and yet if you take these few difficult steps with me, you will stand at once at a point where you see the whole field before you. Two consequences you can no longer avoid. Firstly, the truth of science does not express the reality we live in. Of course, it serves our real life, otherwise it were an empty fancy; and it is worked up from real experience, otherwise it were a dream. But it remains an artificial construction whose right and value do not go beyond the purpose for which it was fabricated. What a hopeless distortion, to magnify it into a philosophy and religion, and to ask science for the ultimate meaning of reality!
But more than that. You understand, secondly, that no science of the universe can say anything about ourselves, who make the sciences. Of course, if the scientist starts to transform the world of things into a system of enchained causes and effects, he must be consistent, and finally apply the same tools of thought to his own personality. He must then consider himself as a body which works like a machine, and all his inner life as happenings in a special part of the machine, in the brain. All the ideas and imaginations, feelings and emotions, go on then in the brain just as it rains and snows in the outer world, and our own will is then the necessary product of its foregoing causes. Such consistency is admirable in its realm, but it must not make us forget that its realm is determined by our own decision, yes, that it is our own free will which decides for a certain purpose to conceive ourselves as bound, our will as a causal process. There is thus no conflict between the claim of science that we are mental mechanisms bound by law and the claim of our self-consciousness that we are free personalities. In reality we are free, and in our freedom we have an interest in thinking of ourselves as mechanisms. In reality we are that which we know ourselves to be in our practical life, — subjects which take free attitudes, and not simply objects.
I see a bright response in your eyes, my friend, — am I right in supposing that your quick intelligence sees how everything else must follow from this central point ? Do you grasp already the vital truth that our life is lived in time only so far as we see ourselves as such causal objects, but that it is beyond time in the reality of our immediate life ? The personality which shapes the objects in its thought creates not only the conception of causality, but in that same act the form of time which is to embrace all causal processes of the world. Past, present, and future mean simply attitudes of the personality toward its objects. We call present the objects which we attend to, and future the objects which we are expecting as effects of the present ones, and past the objects which we conceive as causes of the present ones. But the personality which thus creates by its attitudes the idea of time as form of its objects is not itself banished into the prison of time. To ask what time the real personality itself fills is not more reasonable than to ask whether the will is round or square, how many pounds it weighs, and what its color may be. The real personality, the subject of will and thought, is not an object in time, as it is itself the condition of time. Its whole reality lies in its attitudes and in its acts; it cannot be perceived like a thing, but must be understood in its meaning and aims; it cannot be explained by causality, but must be interpreted and appreciated; it cannot be measured, but must be valued; it is not in the world of things which we find, but in a world of actions and judgments which are performed. The meaning of our real personality is thus not to be a phenomenon for ourselves or others, but to be a will whose acts are valid for ourselves and demand the acknowledgment of others. Our personality reaches another directly —
But no, — I fear your approving countenance means that you think I want to defend a mystical belief in telepathy or spiritualism. This time you misunderstand me utterly. Do you not see, my friend, that the mystic who craves for telepathic and similar wonders seeks the essence of our life still in the world of things in space and time ? He hopes to overcome the limitations of that world of things by breaking the chain of causality, by making exceptions here and there, by linking together in a mysterious way objects which are far from one another in time and space. He does not see that we have projected our experiences into time and space just because we sought to bring order and law and causality in to the chaos, and that we undo our own work if we destroy the order which we created and allow mystery in place of strict causality. In the world of space and time there cannot be any exceptions to the laws of cause and effect, and a mystic event is simply an event which has not yet found its proper explanation.
When I said that we as personalities reach each other immediately, I did not mean that my thought as function of my brain — that is, as a process in the world of phenomena — jumps mysteriously over to your brain. I meant rather that if you and I are talking here absorbed in serious thought, we do not come in question for each other as scientifically constructed bodies in which some mental states succeed one another in time, but merely as real personalities which try to understand one another. Our mutual interest forms a direct will-connection, and that has nothing to do with the causal connection which certainly exists between us if we care to consider ourselves as objects in the sphere of space and time. In that case, of course, our thoughts and our feelings are just passing phenomena which come in time one after the other; but in reality they are judgments, attitudes, volitions, which bind one another by their meaning, without relation to time and succession. Whether I think of myself and of my aim to awake your interest for the creed of philosophy, or whether I think of you and your aim to follow the paths of religious emotions, or whether I think of our common grief and our common memory of our friend, — in every case, my experience is made up of acts which are bound together by the unity of purpose. The one act refers to the other, the one means the other, the one involves the other. If we are here in serious discussion, we do not play the explaining psychologist who asks what thought came by causal laws after what other thought, how many seconds the emotion lasted, how many minutes the development of the ideas, — no, you and I ask ourselves what your attitude toward life, what my view means, and how we agree and disagree; how those intentions hang together in their ends, and how far one act binds us to accept the other. They follow from each other as the equations of the mathematician follow from each other: how needless to ask in what time-order they are related! Has our talk here, has our whole life, any meaning if we seek its reality in such time-succession ?
Do we not mean by time an order in which the reality of one member excludes the reality of all the other members ? Only one time-instant is real, and the reality of the present excludes the reality of everything which precedes; the past must have become unreal when the present is real, and the existence of the present must have become unreal when the future will be real. Of course, the scientist needs this self-devouring time, for, as I said, time is to him the form of causality, and causality indeed demands that the effect shall become real through the disappearance of the causes. As we scientists must think of the world of objects as a causal chain, we must conceive it as a world in time in which new and ever new existing objects follow one another just to disappear in the next instant into the past; that is, into irrevocable unreality. If we take ourselves and our friends as causal objects, then indeed nothing but the present instant of our existence has reality, while all our living and striving up to the present moment has been completely destroyed by having become a thing of the past. Our whole life has then become unreal at the moment of death, and then, of course, we must put all our desires into the hope for a future, near or far, in which something worth while shall become real again. Time has taken away and made unreal everything which gave value to our lives; no wonder that we look out to see whether time cannot bring us again a piece of reality after death or in a billion of years.
And yet, my friend, is there really any value whatever in such a life, short or long or endless, if we conceive it as such a mere series of phenomena in time ? Is life worth living for two heartbeats long, if all that we experience in the first has become non-existent, and thus unreal, in the second ? Is life still life if its contents follow as passive events, each one destroyed by the next, each one just passing by in a momentary existence ? What can be gained if this meaningless procession of shadows is to go on in us for a thousand times a thousand centuries ? The mere extension in time cannot add any new value or dignity. It is not different from extension in space. If you were getting taller and taller, growing up to the highest mountain, stretching up to the moon, on to the farthest star, reaching with your arms around the whole physical universe, would that give you any new value ? Would you not yearn for the narrow room where you might sit again, man with man, to fulfill your daily duties, as they alone give meaning to your life ? A mere expansion, a more and more of phenomena in space and time, is a valueless amassing of indifferent and purposeless material.
How far otherwise if we emancipate ourselves from this unnatural view and apperceive our life as act and not as object, as creator of time and not as a chance occurrence in time! As to this, my real personality, it is meaningless to ask myself what came before or what will come after it. The objects of my personality have the cause-relation and time-length, but my real personality itself has no causes and has no place in time. It does not fill more or less time, just as it is not more or less in weight; and nothing can come after it, just as there is nothing to its right or to its left. My life as a causal system of physical and psychical processes, which lies spread out in time between the dates of my birth and of my death, will come to an end with my last breath; to continue it, to make it go on till the earth falls into the sun, or a billion times longer, would be without any value, as that kind of life which is nothing but the mechanical occurrence of physiological and psychological phenomena had as such no ultimate value for me or for you or for any one at any time. But my real life as a system of interrelated will-attitudes has nothing before or after, because it is beyond time. It is independent of birth and death, because it cannot be related to the biological events; it is not born and will not die; it is immortal; all possible thinkable time is inclosed in it: it is eternal.
You ask what is, then, after all, the value of such a real life ? Even if it is independent of time, why is its eternal timeless reality more valuable than the passing events in the physical world of objects ? What, then, does value mean ? I do not hesitate to reply that your question itself gives you the answer. You ask your question for the purpose of finding the truth, — what does it mean to find truth ? Is truth merely an idea glowing for an instant in your mind like the sparks here in the fireplace before us ? No, you seek truth in your questioning because the truth of the idea means that you respect it, that you feel the truth as something which is an end in itself, something which is absolute, something which demands submission. It does not allow any further question as to whether or not it is useful for something else, but it is itself the end of all questioning. Only that which is such an ultimate end for us is really a value. Yet truth is certainly not the only value to which we submit our will. The complete perfection of the beautiful, the moral deed, the intellectual achievement, the work of civilization, the religious faith, the repose of philosophical conviction, — each is such an end in itself, which we respect as final. But the fact that truth and beauty, morality and culture, religion and philosophy, demand our submission, that we respect them as something which needs no further purpose, means that they are more than our individual personal experiences. They are our own will-acts, in which we know our will as obeying a more than individual will; they are our own will-acts in harmony with an absolute will. To have values in our life thus means ultimately to realize in our life more than our individual will, to fulfill through it absolute duties, to reach in it absolute ends, to complete in it absolute existence, to find in it the repose of absolute perfection, and thus to be beyond the question of purpose; in our values we have reached absolute ends, and we can reach them only as subjects of will, as real personalities.
In our temporal, causal world there is not, and there cannot be, anything of real value, because everything comes to view as the cause of something else, and nothing is an end in itself. The clay may be valuable because you can make bricks from it; and those bricks valuable because you can make houses from them; and the houses valuable because they protect the human body; and the human body is valuable because it preserves the nation; and the nation is valuable because it preserves the human race; and the human race is valuable — why, I do not know. In that temporal order of things that human race may fall into the sun, or a comet may overturn the whole earth, — why are the atoms of the universe not just as good if they go on without that swarming humanity on the surface of the earth-planet; why was the earth not just as good before that surface protoplasm grew into human shape ? Who has the right to say that one combination of atoms is better than another ? — it perhaps produces a special effect, but why is that effect better than another ? In that temporal world there is no good and bad, no value and no ideal, but merely a change in complication; and if we carelessly speak of development, we really mean a change to greater and greater differentiation; but the end of the socalled development is not better than the beginning, as in that world nothing is valuable in itself. Values are found merely in the world of subjects, but there values have reality, because our will assumes attitudes in which ultimate ends are acknowledged and respected;—they are good in themselves, they are absolute values, they give to life that which makes it worth living: and these subjects and their acts are real outside of causality and time, valid in the world of eternity.
In eternity lies the reality of our friend, who will never sit with us again here at the fireplace. I do not think that I should love him better if I hoped that he might be somewhere waiting through space and time to meet us again. I feel that I should then take his existence in the space-time world as the real meaning of his life, and thus deprive his noble personality of every value and of every ideal meaning. The man we love was not in space and time; he fought his life of strife and achievement as a subject which calls not for our perception with its standards of causality, space, and time, but for our interpretation with its standards of agreement, of values, of ideals. We know him as a subject of his will, and thus as a perfect part of the real world in its eternal fitness of valid values. He lived his life in realizing absolute values through his devotion to truth and beauty, to morality and religion; as such an irreplaceable part of the eternal world he is eternal himself. You and I do not know a reality of which he is not in eternity a noble part; the passing of time cannot make his personality unreal, and nothing would be added to his immortal value if some object like him were to enter the sphere of time again. The man whom we love belongs to a world in which there is no past and future, but an eternal now. He is linked to it by the will of you, of me, of all whose will has been influenced by his will, and he is bound to it by his respect for absolute values. In a painting every color is related to the neighboring colors, and it belongs at the same time to the totality of the picture; in the symphony every tone is related to the nearest tones, and yet belongs to the whole symphony. But when the symphony or the painting is perfect, then most of all we do not wish the one beautiful color to sweep over the whole picture, or the one splendid tone to last through the whole music. We do not desire the tone of this individual life to last beyond its internal, eternal rôle, throughout the symphony of the Absolute; its immortality is its perfect belonging to that whole timeless reality, belonging there through its human relations to its neighbors, and through its ideal relations to the ultimate values.
See, even these ashes of the wood which burns in the fireplace are made up of atoms which will last throughout all future time; I do not long for that repulsive, intolerable endlessness which we should have to share with those ashes. They are in time, and can never escape the tracks of time, and however long they may last, there will be endless time still ahead of them. We are beyond time; our hope and our strife is eternally completed in the timeless system of wills, and if I mourn for our friend, I grieve, not because his personality has become unreal like an event in time, but because his personality as it belongs eternally to our world aims at a fuller realization of its intentions, at a richer influence on his friends. This contrast between what is aimed at in our attitude and what is reached in our influence is indeed full of pathos, and yet inexhaustible in its eternal value. We ought to submit to its ethical meaning as we submit to the value of truth and beauty and duty and sanctity. It belongs to the ultimate meaning of each of us; through our aims, through our influences, through our relations to the aims of our fellows and to the ideals of the Absolute, and, finally, through these pathetic contrasts between aims and influences we enter as parts into the absolute reality,—not for calendar years and not for innumerable æons, but for timeless eternity.