THERE are three phases in the life of man, so far as his thoughts upon his surroundings are concerned.
The first of these is the phase of youth, in which he takes certain matured things for granted, and whether he realizes his illusion or no, believes them to be eternal. This phase ends sharply with every man, by the action of one blow. Some essence is dissolved, some binding cordage snaps, or some one dies.
I say no matter how clearly the reason of a man tells him that all about him is changeable, and that perfect and matured things and characters upon whose perfection and maturity he reposes for his peace must disappear, his attitude in youth towards those things is one of a complete security as towards things eternal. For the young man, convinced as he is that his youth and he himself are there for ever, sees in one lasting framework his father's garden, his mother's face, the landscape from his windows, his friendships, and even his life; the very details of food, of clothing, and of lesser custom, all these are fixed for him. Fixed also are the mature and perfect things. This aged friend, in whose excellent humour and universal science he takes so continual a delight, is there for ever. That considered judgment of mankind upon such and such a troubling matter, of sex, of property, or of political right, is anchored or rooted in eternity. There comes a day when by some one experience he is startled out of that morning dream. It is not the first death, perhaps, that strikes him, nor the first loss—no, not even, perhaps, the first discovery that human affection also passes (though that should be for every man the deepest lesson of all). What wakes him to the reality which is for some dreadful, for others august, and for the faithful divine, is always an accident. One death, one change, one loss, among so many, unseals his judgment, and he sees thenceforward, nay, often from one particular moment upon which he can put his finger, the doom which lies upon all things whatsoever that live by a material change.
The second phase which he next enters is for a thoughtful man in a sceptical and corrupted age the crucial phase, whereby will be determined, not indeed the fate of his soul, but the justice, and therefore the advantage to others, of his philosophy.
He has done with all illusions of permanence and repose. Henceforward he sees for himself a definite end, and the road which used to lead over the hills and to be lost beyond in the haze of summer plains now leads directly to a visible place; that place is a cavern in the mountain side, dark and without issue. He must die. Henceforward he expects the passing of all to which he is attached, and he is braced against loss by something lent to him which is to despair as an angel is to a demon; something in the same category of emotion, but just and fortifying, instead of void and vain and tempting and without an end. A man sees in this second phase of his experience that he must lose. Oh, he does not lose in a gamble! It is not a question of winning a stake or forfeiting it, as the vulgar falsehood of commercial analogy would try to make our time believe. He knows henceforward that there is no success, no final attainment of desire, because there is no fixity in any material thing. As he sits at table with the wisest and keenest of his time, especially with the old, hearing true stories of the great men who came before him, looking at well-painted pictures, admiring the proper printing of collected books, and praising the just balance of some classical verse or music which time has judged and made worthy, he so admires and enjoys with a full consciousness that these things are flowing past him. He cannot rely; he attempts no foothold. The equilibrium of his soul is only to be discovered in marching and continually marching. He now knows that he must go onward, he may not stand, for if he did he would fall. He must go forward and see the river of things run by. He must go forward—but to what goal?
There is a third phase, in which (as the experience of twenty Christian centuries determines) that goal also is discovered, and for some who so discover it the experience of loss begins to possess a meaning.
What this third phase is I confess I do not know, and as I have not felt it I cannot describe it, but when that third phase is used as I have suggested a character of wisdom enters into those so using it; a character of wisdom which is the nearest thing our dull time can show to inspiration and to prophecy.
It is to be noted also that in this third phase of man's experience of doom those who are not wise are most unwise indeed; and that where the age of experience has not produced this sort of clear maturity in the spirit, then it produces either despair or folly, or an exaggerated shirking of reality, which, being a falsehood, is wickeder than despair, and far more inhuman than mere foolishness. Thus those who in the third phase of which I speak have not attained the wisdom which I here recognize will often sink into a passion of avarice, accumulating wealth which they cannot conceivably enjoy; a stupidity so manifest that every age of satire has found it the most facile of commonplaces. Or, again, those who fail to find wisdom in that last phase will constantly pretend an unreal world, making plans for a future that cannot be there. So did a man eleven years ago in the neighbourhood of Regent Street, for this man, being eighty-seven years of age, wealthy, and wholly devoid of friends, or near kindred, took a flat, but he insisted that the lease should be one of not less than sixty years. In a hundred ways this last phase if it is degraded is most degraded; and, though it is not worst, it is most sterile when it falls to a mere regret for the past.
Now it is here that the opposite, the wisdoms of old age appears; for the old, when they are wise, are able to point out to men and to women of middle age what these least suspect, and can provide them with a good medicine against the insecurity of the soul. The old in their wisdom can tell those just beneath them this: that though all things human pass, all bear their fruit. They can say: "You believe that such and such a woman, with her courtesy, her travel, her sharp edge of judgment, her large humanity, and her love of the comedy of the world, being dead can never be replaced. There are, growing up around you, characters quite insufficient, and to you, perhaps, contemptible, who will in their fruiting display all these things." There never was, nor has been, a time (say those who are acquainted with the great story of Europe) when Christendom has failed. Out of dead passages there has sprung up suddenly, and quite miraculously, whatever was thought to be lost. So it has been with our music, so with the splendour of our armies, so with the fabric of our temples, so with our deathless rhymes. The old, when they are wise, can do for men younger than they what history does for the reader; but they can do it far more poignantly, having expression in their eyes and the living tones of a voice. It is their business to console the world.
~Hilaire Belloc: from On Something. London: Methuen & Co., 1910.