Life, Art, and Peace


IN the opinion of the theologians of the Middle Ages the conduct of life had been reduced to the status of an exact science. The end to be achieved — salvation of the soul — was definitely fixed, and the general principles to be followed were clearly understood. They accepted the laws of God in a fashion exactly parallel to that in which the contemporary scientist accepts the laws of Nature, and they no more doubted certain fundamental principles like the Forgiveness of Sins than one of these modern scientists doubts the principle of the Conservation of Energy. Hence they could proceed as he does to devise and to describe the means by which these principles could be taken advantage of in order to secure a desired end.

They sometimes spoke of these central dogmas as ‘mysteries,’ but they were mysterious only in the sense that electricity is mysterious, for though they might, like electricity, contain intimate secrets and spring from ultimate causes which no man could understand, yet one knew that they would operate in a certain way and that they could be counted upon to do so. No man knows whence the wind cometh or whither it bloweth, but that, said an American skeptic, makes very little difference, since we know exactly how it behaves when it gets here, and his rationalistic hard-headedness was not unlike the theological hard-headedness of certain learned doctors who rebuked the prying curiosity of those who proposed too many whys and wherefores when they should be taking practical advantage of the laws which God had instituted and revealed in order that a knowledge of their unchanging modus operandi might be used.

Grace could be piped, like oil, from its copious fountainhead; the current flowing out from God could be conducted from priest to priest on to the ultimate consumer, just as electricity is conducted through electrically connected wires; and holy water could be used to destroy evil spirits both as surely and, in one sense, as unmysteriously as carbolic acid kills germs. Woe to him, but to him only, who was ignorant of the laws of God or who perversely refused to live in accordance with the rules of spiritual health!

Disease could be cured, and disease could also, in considerable measure, be prevented. There were desperate surgical operations performed, when the sinner far gone in sin made a deathbed confession and was saved for eternal life by having his spiritual cancers cut away; there were stern but healthful regimens imposed, when incipient damnation was arrested by a course of systematic penance; and there were, besides, rules for rational living by which health might be maintained. The conduct of life was a science, or perhaps it would be better to say that it was, for the layman at least, a technique. Theologians, like scientists, might investigate to extend the knowledge of the laws according to which the universe worked, but the ordinary man accepted what he was told and used their knowledge by employing their inventions and applying whatever he knew to the solution of his individual problem. There were great scientific monographs for the learned, no more understandable to the common man of the Middle Ages than the writings of Michelson or Clerk Maxwell are understandable to the common man of to-day, but there were also popular ‘outlines’ to instruct or amuse him and practical little handbooks enabling him to care for his soul, as a modern man regulates his own diet when he finds himself getting too fat, or keeps his radio set functioning at its highest efficiency.

In those days, then, men approached the problem of ordering their inward lives in the same practical spirit in which we approach that of ordering our material conditions. There were, in a word, rules to live by, and, theoretically at least, the conduct of life never involved questions any more fundamental than those concerned with the practical application of known principles to specific situations. On certain occasions one appealed to the Virgin, on others to Saint Christopher or Saint Anthony; one consulted a priest and, following his advice, one prayed or one fasted. Nor does, indeed, this view of the ‘good life’ necessarily disappear as long as a legalistic religion, like that which the disciples of Christ erected upon the Hebraic foundation, continues to exist, and one may find it very clearly expressed, for example, in a little allegory written by the poet Cowper, who may be taken as a representative of Protestantism in its most completely logical form.

God, says Cowper, is the hospitable master of a magnificent mansion which he has erected for the entertainment of guests. There is one road which leads directly to it, that road is plainly marked, and it is surely not the Master’s fault if some travelers refuse to take it or if they stop to argue either that some other road will do just as well or that he ought to have made it accessible from various directions. To lead the good life, to make existence a success, one needs nothing except the wit to read the plain sign and the common sense to choose the road thus plainly marked.

But the ability to accept a plan of life so delightfully simple depends both upon a complete confidence in the dogmas of some given religion and upon the fact that the aim of existence is fixed for us by such a religion — that we know, in a word, why we are here and to what purpose we ought to devote our lives. As soon as one begins to doubt the validity of the laws of God considered as the fundamental principles of a science which happens to be called theology, or as soon as one begins to raise a question as to the purpose of life, then the problem of conducting that life ceases to be merely a problem of technique and begins to involve certain ultimate questions concerning the end which we wish to reach or concerning what may properly be called success in life.

In practice such questions actually arise as soon as any given religion begins to become a formal instead of a living system of beliefs, as soon as a people, while continuing to agree as a matter of form that the purpose of life is preparation for eternity, begins nevertheless to seek purely temporal ends. And this means, of course, that the questions actually existed for a great many people even during those ages called ages of faith, and that they were of primary importance to most people in the time, let us say, of the poet Cowper, since most people, then as now, acted as though there were ends to be achieved in this life however much they might profess a formal belief in the Christian doctrine which teaches them that it is meaningless except as a preparation for eternity. Yet the questions become more and more acute and the efforts to solve them more and more conscious as people cease more and more even to pretend to believe that they live primarily ‘to save their souls.’ Even the formal assumption that the conduct of life is the subject of an established science from whose general principles practical rules for the successful regulation of everyday acts may be logically deduced becomes impossible, since we no longer agree that we know just in what the success we hope to obtain would consist.

Hence arise a multiplication of philosophies and the formulation of innumerable definitions of ‘the good life’ which range all the way from that implied in Nietzsche’s ‘Live dangerously’ to that implied in various catchwords like the characteristically American nebulosity ‘service,’ and whose very multiplicity reveals how far mankind has drifted from the possibility of formulating any generally acceptable rationalization to impose upon those vital impulses which lead it to live, and how far it is, therefore, from the possibility of regarding life as a science. A few years ago, however, someone let fall the phrase, ‘Life is an Art.’ It was given a wide circulation in Havelock Ellis’s essay, The Dance of Life, and among members of the intellectual class it sprang into an immediate popularity which revealed not only how much that class felt the need of defining some attitude from which the subject of the conduct of life could be approached, but also — since science and art are the two members of a conventional dualism — how completely it had abandoned any belief in the possibility that life could have any purpose fixed in the ultimate nature of things as the result of which its fruitful employment might be made the subject of a science.

Now the aims of art have never been clearly defined. The ends which individual works of art attempt to achieve are, in appearance at least, diverse, and the means which it employs seem almost infinitely variable. Hence it is that to say that life is an art and to use that term ‘art’ in contradistinction to science seems to provide a greater latitude in the choice of both its aims and its methods than could possibly be permitted by a moralist or a theologian who regarded it as a science, and it may very well be that this vagueness which, in spite of all the volumes which have been written on the subject of æsthetics, still surrounds the word ‘art’ may constitute the chief reason for the widespread use of the phrase by people unable to formulate for themselves any definition of the purpose of life as clear and as simple as that offered by either a Roman Catholic theologian or a logical Protestant.

And yet, whatever its ultimate meaning may be, and whether or not it can be shown to have any precise signification, the popularity of this saying that ‘Life is an Art’ implies something which cannot but be important for the understanding of the modern temper, since only a modern could formulate the phrase. It is to the effort to seek out that meaning and to discover what are the limitations of life considered as material for the creation of a work of art that the present section of this essay will be devoted. What is art, and how may its principles be applied to the conduct of life?


In one sense the aim of the scientist and the aim of the artist are the same, since both are in pursuit of what they call truth; but the difference between them may be said to consist in this, that while for science there is only one Truth, for the artist there are many. The scientist, that is to say, is in search of truths which owe their name to the fact that they correspond to something in the world outside himself, while the artist is in search of those which need to be true only in the sense that they seem true to him and that they hold good within the artificial universe which is enclosed within the frame of the work of art he is creating.

The scientist must submit to the judgment of others not merely the conclusions which he reaches, but also the premises with which he began and the methods which he uses in developing his work from them, but the artist, within very wide limits at least, is allowed to choose whatever premises he likes, and, as a result, it is by no means necessary that all good artists should agree to anything like the same extent that all good scientists must agree. In recognition of this fact literary critics never tire of asserting as a fundamental principle of criticism that in discussing a work of art we must concern ourselves exclusively with the question, ‘How far did the artist succeed in doing what he set out to do or in saying what he set out to say?’ and never with the question of whether we consider his purpose useless or pernicious. To do so would be, they say, to introduce moral or other extraneous question into the realm of æsthetics, and from this we may conclude that, if life is an art, then an analogous principle must be accepted as the basis of all efforts to criticize it.

The first effect of a determination to regard life as an art instead of as a science would, then, seem necessarily to be to grant to the individual a much greater latitude than the theologian would allow him in choosing the purpose to which he wishes to devote his life, and would lead us to judge of his success, not by considering the end which he proposes, but merely by the extent to which he is successful in his effort to achieve that end. It would be to assume (as the modern man feels almost compelled to assume) that life has no purpose fixed by a power outside of life (as distinguished from such purpose as the individual may be able to choose or believe in for himself), and hence to assume also that there is no more any such thing as the good life than there is any such thing as the good work of art, although, of course, there may be various good lives just as there are various good works of art.

When considered from such a point of view the treatises on morality upon which the theologian lays so much stress would seem to bear about the same relation to the art of life as treatises on rhetoric bear to the art of letters, and to be scarcely more useful. Both are based upon the assumption that the subject with which they deal is a science governed by certain fixed laws and aiming at fixed ends, and both assume also that the methods of one successful practitioner of either life or letters may be formulated for the imitation of those who aspire to a similar success. But the good writer does not usually learn much from such textbooks. He generally discovers that he is able by their aid to produce nothing but frigid rhetorical exercises and that he must create his own original style if he is to achieve any real success. This is the natural result of the fact that literature is an art instead of a science, that it depends, that is to say, too much upon the individual personality to be reducible to a teachable technique, and it serves to explain by analogy why moral treatises offer so little aid to the individual in search of a good life. The principles there laid down may possibly be those which a certain man followed in achieving a certain kind of success in a certain kind of life, but they may be as useless to another man as the rhetorical analysis of a classical writer’s sentence structure is to another writer. Rhetoric takes no real account of the art in literature, and morality takes no account of the art in life.

Perhaps, however, the exact thought here meant can more easily be made clear by means of an example taken from the creative work of a man who did, at least at certain times, attempt to regard life as an art, and for that purpose a passage may be chosen from one of the novels of Henry James. Those who have read The American will remember that toward the end of that work the hero turns into a little church to meditate upon the wrongs which have been inflicted upon him, and that though at first he considers the possibility of revenge, of retaliating upon those who have injured him, yet after a little he repudiates the idea because, says James, he came to realize that ‘revenge was not his game.’

Now the thing to be noticed here is the fact that this typical though early Jamesian hero did not conclude that revenge was ‘wrong,’ that an obligation to eschew it was imposed upon him from without, or that there was any science of life from whose principles the folly of revenge could be deduced, but only that such revenge ‘was not his game.’ He had, in other words, adopted a certain style of living and acting exactly as an artist adopts a certain style for the execution of a work of art, and he realized that an act of revenge was inappropriate to that style exactly as an artist might realize that a certain incident or observation or shape was not appropriate to the particular work in hand. He did not, be it further observed, say that revenge was not, or ought not to be, anybody’s ‘game,’ for, by implication at least, he recognized the fact that other artists working in other styles might, on the other hand, find it the only appropriate thing—that Benvenuto Cellini, for example, would fail if he refused to take a revenge just as surely as the hero here under discussion would fail if he consented to do so, since revenge was as distinctly a part of Benvenuto’s game as it was distinctly not a part of his.

To him life was, in other words, an art, and in art all styles are good provided that they are consistent and harmonious within themselves. There is the ‘style’ of Benvenuto Cellini and there is the ‘style’ of Saint Francis of Assisi, both of whom led successful lives because each of them lived in accordance with the law of his being. The science of morals endeavors to divide men into the good and the bad by determining whether or not their purposes and their deeds accord with certain fixed principles and rules established outside themselves, but æsthetics can only pretend to judge them in accordance with their failure or success in developing themselves according to their self-chosen style. It cannot recognize the existence of good or bad men, but only of successful or unsuccessful artists. Life has its heroes and its villains, its soubrettes and its ingénues, and all rôles may be acted well.

Thus, though the popularity of the saying that life is an art is subsequent to the career of Henry James as a novelist, he had, nevertheless, so fallen into the habit of thinking of it as such that one may find in his work very convenient illustrations of the first and most immediate effects of such an attitude. The puritanism which he inherited and which determined so many of his most fundamental instincts was sufficient to guarantee him against the possibility of following this line of thought out to its logical nihilistic conclusion, and there were kinds of lives as well as of art which — happily perhaps — he had not sufficient catholicity of taste to appreciate, but, having outgrown the ‘scientific morality’ of his puritan ancestors, he was endeavoring to replace it with an æsthetic attitude which would give him that basis for making distinctions which is necessary not only for the novelist, but also for every man who makes an effort to live humanly in the natural universe.

He was, however, careful never to treat in his novels any except decorous people, people who, however emancipated they might think themselves from moral principles, did nevertheless always conduct themselves in such a way as to keep within the limits of a certain propriety. He never chose to describe any of those terrifying ‘artists’ who, like the great criminals, the great conquerors, or even like Benvenuto himself, live quite‘successfully ’ because quite consistently in accordance with the style which they have chosen, and he did not do so because he realized, consciously or unconsciously, that those moral instincts which were still strong within him would not permit him to give an æsthetic justification to any manner of life which violated too strongly the moral principles which survived in him in a form still capable of producing very intense repugnances.

James, then, considered that life is an art, but he never dared to test his theory outside the walls of a drawingroom, and though this timid compromise, this constant hesitation between a thoroughgoing æstheticism and an attenuated puritan morality, served the purpose of a novelist who confined his attention to a very quiet scene, it is difficult to see how the philosopher who proposes to consider existence as a whole from an æsthetic standpoint can avoid a far bolder application of æsthetic principles.

Considered as artistic creations, Hamlet and Othello are no greater and therefore no better than Macbeth or Iago. In the tragedy villain and hero are equal, and if the meaning of existence is an artistic meaning, then the same is true in life also. The life led by the great monster is as truly the good life as that led by the great saint. Man has the liberty of choosing what James called the ‘game’ he will play (that is, the style to be adopted in that work of art which is his life), and the liberty of choice cannot be limited anywhere by any except æsthetic considerations without introducing the idea of morality, which, if it is intellectually justifiable at one point, is intellectually justifiable at others. Life being an art and not a science, we may become either Cellini or Saint Francis, but if that is true we may also become Napoleon or the Marquis de Sade. Both of the latter played rôles in that tragedy or comedy or farce called ’the history of the world,’ both played well enough to be remembered as classical examples of how ‘their game’ might be successfully played, and hence both were greater artists than the thousands whom morality would judge far more favorably.

In the graphic arts shadows are no less important than high lights, and in the literary arts villains are no less important than heroes. We do not praise one and blame the other, we do not say that it is better to be a spot of sun than the shadow of a tree, and in the world where life is an art Good and Evil are only the names of high light and shadow. Nor is such thoroughgoing æstheticism anything at all new in the world, since it was indeed exactly the philosophy formulated by certain Gnostic sects whose creed was the result of the operation of the subtle intellect of the classical world upon the naïvely vital religion of the Christians, and to whom we may turn in order to find what are the ultimate logical conclusions to be drawn from the proposition that life is an art.


These Gnostics had set out upon the perilous enterprise called thinking with the avowed purpose of solving the problem of evil. They had accepted the proposition which all men, led by their wish, naturally accept, — the proposition, that is to say, that God is good, — and they felt the need to reconcile it with the evil and suffering which they saw everywhere around them. Since this evil was copious and omnipresent, it must, they thought, serve some useful purpose and be, that is to say, not really evil, but merely a different kind of good. They were not blessed with that naïveté which permitted the ordinary Christian to reconcile the omnipotent benevolence of God with the existence of a Devil, since they were logical enough to see that a God who permitted the existence of such an evil power would have to be either not all benevolent or not all powerful, but they did, nevertheless, devise an explanation quite worthy of the artistic subtlety of the Greek mind.

The Good, they said, is, like everything else, an Idea, and the various virtues — Benevolence, Justice, Purity, and what not — can exist only as Ideas perceived or entertained by the mind. But the mind, it must be remembered, cannot realize the existence of anything unless its opposite exists also. We should, for example, have no word for and therefore no Idea of Light if we did not know what Darkness is, and similarly the Idea of Purity could not exist without the Idea of Impurity, by means of which it is defined. In a world where everybody was always and equally just or kind, neither Justice nor Kindness would exist in the mind, and hence evils of all kind are permitted in order that their corresponding goods may exist. The cruel man, for instance, is not only tolerated but encouraged, because his cruelty serves no less than the kindness of another to make real the Idea of Kindness in that consciousness where alone the realest reality can exist.

This solution of the problem of evil was not only extremely subtle but based upon quite artistic principles, since it not only regarded human character from the standpoint of those who would require of a man only that he play his rôle, villainous or heroic, in a manner suitable to the part he had undertaken, but also viewed the whole universe as a species of drama into which God had introduced evil and suffering in exactly the same way in which a playwright introduces them into his play — for the purpose, that is to say, of contrast. Seen from such an angle, God becomes an impressarioplaywright and man an actor, or, to change the metaphor, the universe is a great painting in which those shadows called evil are no less important or admirable than those high lights called good.

But however consistent this point of view may be, it led the Gnostics to the consideration of certain paradoxical propositions which they, with resolute logic, hastened to embrace. If the evil man is no less necessary than the good, why should we withhold from him our admiration and approval any more than we withhold our applause from that artist (often the most distinguished of the company) who enacts the villain in the play? Abel was good, but so was Cain, and if, grown bold, we approach now the central mystery of our religion, what of Christ and of Judas? Without Judas there would have been no Crucifixion, and without the Crucifixion there would have been no Salvation. Jesus the Saviour had need of the traitor without whom he would have been powerless to save, and hence we owe our redemption no less to Judas than to him. Christ, to be sure, said that it would have been better for Judas had he never been born, and so be it. But it would surely not have been better for us. Let us, then, canonize Saint Judas, putting him whose soul was damned in order that we might be saved at least as high as that other Saviour whose happier fate it was to pass from the Cross to eternal glory. And so they did.

The logic is admirable. It is doubtless, however, hardly necessary to add that these intellectual paradoxes led to examples of conduct which might be easily justified by Gnostic theology, but which were not only highly scandalous in the eyes of less ‘artistic’ sects, but actually destructive of social order, which was replaced by anarchy. The Gnostics knew how to think very subtly indeed, and they furnished more than one mauvais quart d’heure to the orthodox Fathers, who responded to them at length, but they did not know how to live in a world where many things work better in social practice than logic does.

It is rather difficult to carry on trade with a man who may be planning to revivify your Idea of Justice by cheating you unmercifully, and rather difficult successfully to bring up a family when the father illustrates benevolence indirectly by beating the children or when the mother sets out to secure a clearer Idea of Purity by prostituting all of her daughters. And so it is that the Gnostics faded out of history by a process which seems never to have been chronicled, but which it is not difficult to imagine, leaving the world to those people who did not think life an art, who had supreme confidence in a ‘science’ of morality which was often fantastically arbitrary and completely indefensible from any intellectual standpoint, but which did, nevertheless, by virtue of the mere fact that it was generally accepted, give a stability to a society in which at least man-theanimal could live and perpetuate his species.

This brand of Gnosticism was not, then, a very practical philosophy of life, and yet it is to it or to something very much like it that one must turn if one would discover the full implication of the saying that life is an art, since one finds in Henry James, for example, only a timid and very restricted effort to apply the principle, and since the majority of those who have turned hopefully to the examination of the saying have done so merely because they saw in it the possibility of something which would replace discarded moral codes by a workable philosophy of life, allowing a slightly greater latitude for the differing needs of the various individuals whose first need, now that authority has failed, must be to discover what, for them, would be either the good life or, at least, a good life.

Yet it is not to be supposed that no moderns have followed out to the end the implications of this ésthetic attitude. One might, for example, cite the case of Ernest Renan, whose profound knowledge of early Christian thought no doubt influenced his own thinking and who once delivered himself of the following opinion: ‘The universe,’ he said, ‘is a spectacle which the Good God gives for his own amusement. Let us contribute to the purpose of the great stage-manager by making it as vivid and as varied as possible.’ Surely this saying implies a full appreciation of all the latitudes which the determination to regard life as an art permits, and the injunction with which it concludes conceals under the mildness of irony a moral nihilism which obliterates every possible distinction between the ‘best’ and the ‘worst’ man that history has ever known. Yet Renan himself, like Henry James, was a mild man. Thanks to his early training, he retained to the end a sort of sentimental piety, and he was compelled to confess that his own life had been more blamelessly studious than he would advise his disciples to make theirs. He did not live by the philosophy which he professed, — indeed it is doubtful if any man could live by it, — and it is to one of his countrymen that one must turn if one would find a still more consistent example of the theory that life is an art.

Anatole France has not only professed to regard life from an exclusively æsthetic point of view, but came nearer than most of those who would believe that they believe with him to living it according to the principles which he proclaimed. In his works one may find a somewhat softened and idealized picture of his character and opinions, and in the two memoirs composed by his maliciously observant secretary, Jean-Jacques Brousson, one may find revealed aspects of both which France himself would hardly have cared to see set down. Brousson had a genius for remembering the most telltale gestures as well as the most self-revelatory remarks, and he records one utterance of his master which says more in fewer words than even Renan was able to say in his two accomplished sentences.

It seems the conversation had turned (as in France’s company it nearly always did) to the subject of the cult of Aphrodite Pandemos. Some anecdotes were told concerning the practices of those whose tastes ran in the direction usually called ‘against nature,’ and some remarks were made concerning both the horror with which many regarded such practices and the ferocity with which the law of many lands punishes those who have been found guilty of them. But France, as usual, professed a very tolerant attitude. One must gratify whatever tastes one has and seek whatever happiness one may be able to find. ‘Chacun,’ he concluded with a shrug of his shoulders, ‘fait son salut comme il peut.’

Chacun fait son salut comme il peut. No phrase of English translation can be quite so neat. ‘Every man seeks his salvation as he may’ is awkward, but it expresses in clumsy fashion the idea, and when taken in connection with the context it will give some idea both of the comprehensive liberty there granted and of that sweeping refusal to make moral distinctions which is implied in the masterfully malicious adroitness with which the single word salut is made to include any desire which a man may have from Augustine’s thirst for God on down to the last perverse whim which has taken possession of the débauché whose desires are, no doubt, just as imperious and as little to be questioned as are those of anyone else.

Nothing could illustrate a more complete achievement of that inclusive tolerance which has been one of the principal ends proposed to itself the modern spirit, and nothing, perhaps, could be more reasonable. ‘There are,’ said Havelock Ellis in a very penetrating phrase, ‘no hard facts except the facts of emotion.’ We feel what we feel and we want what we want with a directness which permits of no possible skepticism. We may doubt the conclusions of our logic, the premises of our philosophy, and even the evidence of our eyes, but we cannot doubt these emotions and these desires, since they are for us the only ultimate realities in the sense that they are the only things with which we are in immediate contact. And if this be true, what folly it is either to refuse to be guided by the only things of which we have any real knowledge or to pretend to reprobate others who do the same. Life is not a science, but rather an art to be lived by each person in accordance with the rules of his own being. Nature has no ends consonant with or comprehensible to the desires of man which would make it possible for him to accord himself to her, and there is nothing outside of Nature except man himself. To one placed far enough away in space and time, to the One whom we may imagine to be so placed, the universe is a thrilling spectacle. Let us do what we can to make it as vivid and as varied as possible. Chacun fait son salut comme il pent.

And yet, logical as that may seem, it will not work. The individual man may profess to believe that he finds such a creed satisfactory and he may possibly live out a life by it, but no society organized upon such principles could possibly last. Nature would not tolerate a humanism so complete and would wipe out the animals who dared try to exist upon principles so completely antithetical to those necessary for animal survival. Perhaps man cannot believe anything except that, but he cannot believe it and live, although almost any false science of life will serve to give that regularity necessary to the maintenance of human society. Moral codes which were not only utterly unreasonable, but which included among their details prescriptions in themselves as inimical to survival as periodic human sacrifices upon a large scale, have given a stability which served to perpetuate human society, but æsthetic principles will not do, because, though the human mind may be made to work in accordance with them, external nature will not, and the ultimate dilemma may be stated thus: The proposition that life is a science is intellectually indefensible; the proposition that life is an art is pragmatically impossible.


In the world which he describes the artist is God. Not only does he create the characters who move across his pages and control the various destinies accorded them, but he establishes as well the psychological laws according to which the souls of his creatures operate, and makes over even Nature herself when it is necessary to do so in order that his mimic world may seem what he wants it to be. According to the style which he has adopted, he may or he may not take care to make it seem that the universe with which he as an artist is concerned appears identical or nearly identical with that in which his readers live, but whether he seeks to produce an illusion of actuality or whether he leaves it clearly apparent that he is describing things, not as they are, but merely as they might be, the fact remains that he is master of the scene to an extent impossible outside of art.

It has often been pointed out that the novel with a thesis is, in spite of the great popularity which the genre has achieved, completely worthless so far as its avowed purpose is concerned, since a thesis cannot be proved by means of examples which its defender is at liberty to invent, but deductions far more important than this may be drawn from the omnipotence of the artist so far as his work of art is concerned, and it is indeed just the fact that this omnipotence, necessary to the artist, is possible for him as an artist but impossible for him as a man which reduces the statement that life is an art to mere nonsense when the attempt is made to consider it as more than a pretty phrase. The artist creates the world in which his imagination functions, but the world in which he lives is created for him and he cannot make life the material of an art because he lacks that complete control over both outward events and their inward reverberations which would be necessary to enable him to do so. Many of the most beautiful and satisfactory universes imagined in art bear very little relation to any part of the actual universe, even though the characters who move through them have historical names, and it would be easy to show how impossible the artistic success which they achieve in their imaginary world would have been in the real one.

Consider, for example, the universe of Racine, characterized through its whole extent by a certain orderly sort of grandeur which just barely escapes the pomposity of the French court, and which accords so well with the neat couplets in which he chronicled both the deeds of the mortals who inhabited it and the reflections of the punctilious gods who judged them according to the principles laid down in some celestial Book of Etiquette. Racine’s characters devote their lives to the pursuit of one fiction called Glory, and they are guided or restrained by another fiction called Honor. Neither of these fictions corresponds either to anything in the natural universe or, at least very exactly, to any imaginary thing which ever controlled the lives of any real people. Glory is something won in vague wars between the monarchs of shadowy kingdoms, in the course of which none of those inglorious slaughters and devastations which accompany all real wars take place, and Honor is some rhetorical something which has nothing whatever to do with that Christian conception with which it is nevertheless in many of the plays equated, or with that complex of conventions mingled with desires for safety and power which are sometimes given that name by people who read enough literature to wish to impose upon themselves a form belonging properly to art.

And yet in that universe in which the action of Racine’s tragedies takes place these fictions are real, because he has the power to hypothesize for them the same sort of reality which feelings have for real men. He has created the laws of a psychology by virtue of which his characters act in a certain way. He has been able to annihilate facts which, like the horrors of war, might dim the glory of those heroes of his who so wantonly embark upon it; and he has even been able to make his powers extend to the gods themselves, who judge as he wants them to judge and interpose to set things right when he wishes them to do so. Thanks to these powers his world is neat and satisfactory and simple, and his characters live good lives more successfully than any lived in this more complicated world of nature.

To achieve all this, to create a world in which we enter gladly and which we find indeed preferable in many respects to the one in which we live, Racine needed only to be self-consistent, to make his characters act always in accord with the laws of his psychology no matter how much they might violate those of real human character, and to make things turn out as they would in his universe no matter how different this might be from the way in which they would turn out in the world of nature. But the man who, enamored of Racine’s world and convinced that life is an art, should determine to live like one of these characters would soon discover that he lacked the necessary power to transform our universe into that of Racine. His wars would not be bloodless, the other characters would not play up to his rôle as they should, and the gods would not intervene when necessary to redress those balances which Nature is never very careful to keep even. Indeed we may add that it was exactly this that the king who ruled in Racine’s age, together with the various heroes, knights, and lovely ladies who composed his court, did try to do; or rather, of course, if we wish to be more literal, that Racine’s world was the world toward which this court was striving, and that the difference between the greatness of Racine’s tragedies and the littleness of French history is exactly the measure of the difference between the success that can be achieved in art and the failure which is inevitable in life. Bajazet is a satisfactory tragic hero; Louis XIV is not.

We classify works of art into different genres, calling them tragedies or comedies or farces according to the kind of self-contained perfection which they achieve, and in art, though in art alone, it is possible to achieve the requisite purity of style. Tragedy takes place in an imaginary world where everything — language and manners as well as events and emotions—is consonant with that idea of human dignity upon which tragedy depends. Comedy takes place in an entirely different world where the mind is always superior to the emotions and where, in a word, what we call the Comic Spirit holds exactly the same exclusive sway as the Tragic Spirit holds in tragedy; while farce takes place in still a third world, and each of the other genres has, in similar fashion, its own realm. One touch of comedy would destroy any tragedy (unless, of course, as in the case with Shakespeare, the comic scenes were kept insulated from instead of integrated with the others) and one touch of tragedy would destroy any comedy, because that inward harmony, that perfect accord of one part with another, which makes possible the satisfying perfection of a work of art, is dependent upon the fact that the whole is organized upon one logical and consistent scheme. But these separate, self-contained, and self-justifying worlds exist only in the imagination of man, who created them out of his own desire for harmony rather than as the result of any observation of the real world, which is not a tragic or a comic, but rather a natural world — one, that is to say, in which events take place in accordance with laws which have no relation to that human sense of fitness so agreeably exemplified in the worlds of his imagination.

Thus what in art we call tragedy and comedy and farce do not represent life as it was ever lived by any group of people, but only the various forms toward which various people or various societies have endeavored unsuccessfully to aspire. Louis XIV tried to live as though he were the hero of one of Racine’s tragedies, Sir Philip Sydney tried to live as though he were the hero of one of those half-pastoral, half-heroic prose romances of which he gave the world an example, Byron as though he were his own Childe Harold, and all the members of the society of King Charles the Second’s day tried to live as though they were characters in one of Congreve’s comedies. In each case one may easily divine what style these various people were seeking to achieve, just as one has no difficulty in recognizing the fact that the American self-made man tries to act as though life were an Alger book or the average Italian as though it were an opera; but in no single one of the cases could the rôle be sustained or the catastrophe be made suitable to the work of art upon which the life was modeled. Tragedy may exist in the pages of Racine and comedy may exist in the pages of Congreve, but neither can exist except upon premises invented by the author for the purpose of constructing a world far more regular and simple than the real one.

Turn first to a comedy like Love for Love or The Way of the World, and turn then to some history or memoir dealing with the actual society out of which these two works of art were born. There can, to begin with, be no question concerning the fact that the principal assumptions upon which Congreve proceeded in the writing of his plays are exactly the same as those upon which his contemporaries endeavored to proceed in the living of their lives. To the one as to the other the pursuit of love was the chief business of existence, and love, as the grave Bishop Burnet said in attempting to describe the particular nature of King Charles’s gallant proclivities, ‘had no seraphic part.’ Life was a game; the idea of morality, sexual or other, was abolished; and the Ten Commandments of which Charles was said to take no account were discarded in favor of the ten thousand which he was said never to break. Wit, address, and savoir-faire came to be the qualities by which the success of a man was judged, and the meaning of any event was sought in the examples of these qualities which were revealed in the course of it, just as the meaning of an event would, by a puritan, be sought in the moral principles to be deduced therefrom or, by a sentimentalist, in the various tender feelings to which it gave rise.

Proceeding upon these assumptions, Congreve wrote what are perhaps the most perfect comedies which universal literature affords. Not only do they glitter with wit, but, and this is the thing which makes them supremely great, they present the image of a world which is balanced, harmonious, and perfect. His heroes achieve completely the style which they are seeking to achieve, they play the rôles which they have chosen with flawless skill, and they conduct the action to a conclusion perfectly in accord with that scheme of justice which is not, to be sure, the scheme of justice imagined by Shakespeare any more than it is that imagined by Saint Augustine, but which is, nevertheless, quite as consistent as either. Every character gets the reward or the punishment due to his wit and address or to his lack of both, and each, that is to say, lives in a universe which functions perfectly according to those ideas of what is right and proper naturally deducible from the premises of comedy.

If they be considered purely as works of art, it would be folly to say that these comedies are any less admirable than the tragedies of Shakespeare, since they achieve their purpose quite as completely; and if life is an art there is no reason why men may not just as reasonably decide to live according to the model of Congreve as according to the model of Shakespeare. And yet, if one turns now to the histories or the memoirs which deal with the careers of those who did attempt so to live, one will not find there any corresponding perfection. None of Congreve’s characters is dead, like Lord Rochester, at thirty, and none dies, like Villiers, ‘in the worst inn’s worst room.’ Tragedy, melodrama, and that merely frowzy sort of actuality which cannot be likened to any art form, do not intrude upon his scene to spoil it completely, as they did upon the scene where Charles’s courtiers were doing their best to play their comic rôles as artistically as possible.

Nor can it be said that the fault lay with these comedians. The Rochesters and the Sedleys and the Gramonts were endowed with a wit and an impudence hardly inferior to that of a Valentine or a Mirabell, and if they failed they did so because there was no milieu where they could play their rôles with real success. Congreve had created his world out of various fictions, and it was only in such a world that such characters could really live. Since wit was their sole attribute, he had imagined a world where wit alone would count, and he had abstracted from it whatever was capable of disturbing the particular sort of harmony which wit can create. Since they were to play with love as one plays a game, without seeking either sensual pleasure or exalted emotions, he gave to them neither hearts which could suffer nor bodies which could be soiled; and, thanks to their freedom from the possibility of either emotional complications or physical ills, they could flutter like immortal butterflies from intrigue to intrigue — pure intelligences forever fresh, and forever gay. But it is only in art and never in life that the world can be thus reconstructed. Nature gave to the Rochesters and the Sedleys corruptible bodies and even, in certain measure, suffering hearts without asking whether or not they would like to have them, and thus they lacked that omnipotence which alone would make it possible to consider life as an art.

Every good statue is marked by a certain air of repose; every fine picture exists in a state of stable equilibrium brought about by the balance of its masses; and every great work of literature conveys to the reader a certain sense that a peace of some sort reigns within the domain which it describes. No matter how tumultuous some of the events or how far the individual characters with which it is concerned may be from any repose, yet the whole is a whole rather than a collection of fragments, and does so balance tumult against tumult as to create an order out of disorder and give to the reader that sense of repose which enables him to recognize it as a work of art as distinguished either from any merely literal chronicle of life or from life itself. Some God, it says, is in some Heaven, even if he be only that creative and omnipotent imagination of the author who has brought order out of chaos and given meaning to the meaningless.

Hence it is that we speak of the Peace of Art and that we take refuge in it from the disorder of nature and of life. We turn to it because, even though it be tragic, it does nevertheless provide balm for the sufferings which it describes and images a world made after a pattern we can understand and accept. And no wonder then that we should like to believe that life itself could be made an art, that we might give to our own existences that roundness achieved by a character in a drama or that we might somehow impose upon the events taking place around us an order like that assumed by the events which compose any work of art, be it tragedy or comedy or farce. But if it is indeed this kind of peace which we seek, then it is evident that to proceed upon principles deduced from the false analogy between life and art is to court a failure more calamitous even than that of the average man, since those who lived in that fashion — the Louis’s, the Byrons, and the Rochesters — are the very ones who failed most conspicuously to achieve that peace which Saint Augustine on the other hand found in an entirely different manner when he submitted himself completely to the imaginary will of a nonexistent God. The peace of art is dependent upon order, but the theory that life is an art leads in practice to anarchy.

Art does, in fine, furnish a means by which life may be contemplated, but not a means by which it may be lived. We may survey the history of the world or the events of our past life as an artist surveys his materials. We may make dramas, tragic or farcical, of our memories, and we may to a certain extent arrange them into patterns,— noting a striking contrast here, a telling irony there, and a flame of passion somewhere else, — even if we cannot compose the whole into a picture as rounded and as perfect as that which constitutes a real work of art for the simple reason that the most imaginative historian can never quite equal the effects of a great novelist. But art ceases where action begins, and its principles cannot afford us that guide to conduct which is the thing which we, our wills paralyzed by our intellects, most need.

Already we have gone further in the direction in which it would lead us than we can safely go. Mind, which has flourished more and more vigorously as animal vitality declined, has reasoned away one by one all those fixed points with reference to which life could be organized, and, having first obliterated the faiths toward which man could appeal, has turned triumphantly to ask them for what purpose they can live in the world of bare nature or why they should want to do so. And at bottom æsthetics has no answer to these questions, though it may, on the contrary, serve to further that process as the result of which any answer becomes more and more nearly impossible, since it is in reality far more a negation than an affirmation. One can understand very easily the things which it denies, — that, for example, life has any inherent purpose or that moral laws, imposed upon man from without, exist, — but such denials have already been too effectively made by science and anthropology and logic to require any further reiteration or support. And if one turns to ask what affirmations it brings by way of compensation, one discovers that they are either so vague as to be useless or based upon analogies so obviously false that they collapse when submitted to logical examination. At the very best it affords no more than another solvent, another critical instrument by means of which the various sciences of life men used to live may be proved to be false. If we embrace it we may discover a new way of meditating and perhaps even a new way of despairing, but we know no better than we knew before what we ought to do.