HERE and there, scattered rarely among men as men are now, you will find one man who does not pursue the same ends as his fellows; but in a peculiar manner leads his life as though his eyes were fixed upon some distant goal or his appetites subjected to some constant and individual influence.
Such a man may be doing any one of many things. He may be a poet, and his occupation may be the writing of good verse, pleased at its sound and pleased as well by the reflection of the pleasure it will give to others. Or he may be devoted, and follow a creed, a single truth or a character which he loves, and whose influence and glory he makes it his business to propagate. Or he may be but a worker in some material, a carver in wood, or a manager of commercial affairs, or a governor and administrator of men, and yet so order his life that his work and his material are his object: not his gain in the end─not his appreciable and calculable gain at least─nor his immediate and ephemeral pleasures.
Such men, if you will examine them, will prove intent upon one ultimate completion of their being which is also (whether they know it or not) a reward, and those who have carefully considered the matter and give it expression say that such men are out a-hunting for Immortality.
Now what is that? There was a man, before the Normans came to England, who sailed from the highest Scandinavian mountains, I think, towards these shores, and landing, fought against men and was wounded so that he was certain to die. When they asked him why he had undertaken that adventure, he answered: "That my name might live between the lips of men."
The young, the adventurous, the admired─how eagerly and how properly do they not crave for glory. Fame has about it a divine something as it were an echo of perfect worship and of perfect praise, which, though it is itself imperfect, may well deceive the young, the adventurous, and the admired. How great to think that things well done and the enlargement of others shall call down upon our names, even when all is lost but the mere names, a continuous and an increasing benediction. Nay, more than this: how great to think of the noise only of an achievement, and to be sure that the poem written, the carving concluded, or the battle won, the achievement of itself, though the name of the achiever be perished or unknown, shall awake those tremendous echoes.
But wait a moment. What is that thing which so does and so desires? What end does it find in glory? It is not the receiver of the benefit; it will not hear that large volume of recognition and of salute. Twist it how you will no end is here, nor in such a pursuit is the pursuer satisfied.
It is true that men who love to create for themselves imaginary stuff, and to feed, their cravings, if they cannot with substance then with dreams, perpetually pretend a satisfaction in such acquirements which the years as they proceed tell them with increasing iteration that they do not feel. The young, the adventurous, the admired, may at first be deceived by such a glamour, and it is in the providential scheme of human affairs, and it is for the good of us all that the pleasing cheat should last while the good things are doing. Thus do substantial verse and noble sculpture and building whose stuff is lasting and whose beauty is almost imperishable, rise to the advantage of mankind─but oh! there is no lasting in the dream.
There comes a day of truth inwardly but ineradicably perceived, when such things, such aspirations, are clearly known for what they are. Of all the affections that pass, of all those things which being made by a power itself perishable, must be unmade again, some may be less, others more lasting, but not one remains for ever.
Nor is this all. What is it, I say, which did the thing and suffered the desire? Not the receiver, still less the work achieved, it was the man that so acted and so desired; and that part of him which was affected thus we call the Soul. Then, surely (one may reason) the soul has, apt to its own nature, a completion which is also a reward, and there is something before it which is not the symbol or the cheat of perfect praise, but is perfect praise; there is surely something before it which is not the symbol or the cheat of life, but life completed.
Now stand at night beneath a clear heaven solemn and severe with stars, comprehend (as the great achievement of our race permits us now to do) what an emptiness and what a scale are there, and you will easily discover in that one glance, or you will feel at least the appalling thing which tempts men to deny their immortality.
There is no man who has closely inquired upon this, and there is none who has troubled himself and admitted a reasonable anxiety upon it, who has not well retained the nature of despair. Those who approach their fellow-beings with assertion and with violence in such a matter, affirming their discovery, their conviction, or their acquired certitude, do an ill service to their kind. It is not thus that the last things should be approached nor the most tremendous problem which man is doomed to envisage be propounded and solved. Ah! the long business in this world! The way in which your deepest love goes up in nothingness and breaks away, and the way in which the strongest and the most continuous element of your dear self is dissipated and fails you in some moment; if I do not understand these things in a man nor comprehend how the turn of the years can obscure or obliterate a man's consciousness of what his end should be, then I act in brute ignorance, or what is much worse, in lack of charity.
How should you not be persuaded, ephemeral intelligence? Does not every matter which you have held closely enough and long enough escape you and withdraw? Is not that doom true of things which were knit into us, and were of necessity, so to speak, prime parts of our being? Is it not true of the network and the structure which supports whatever we are, and without which we cannot imagine ourselves to be? We ourselves perish. Of that there is no doubt at all. One is here talking and alive. His friends are with him: on the time when they shall meet again he is utterly not there. The motionless flesh before his mourners is nothing. It is not a simulacrum, it is not an outline, it is not a recollection of the man, but rather something wholly gone useless. As for that voice, those meanings in the eyes, and that gesture of the hand, it has suddenly and entirely ceased to be.
Then how shall we deny the dreadful conclusion (to which how many elder civilizations have not turned!) that we must seek in vain for any gift to the giver for any workers' wage, or, rather, to put it more justly, for a true end to the life we lead. Yet it is not so. The conclusion is more weighty by far that all things bear their fruit: that the comprehender and the master of so much, the very mind, suffers to no purpose and in one moment a tragic, final, and unworthy catastrophe agrees with nothing other that we know. It is not thus of the good things of the earth that turn kindly into the earth again. It cannot be thus with that which makes of all the earth a subject thing for contemplation and for description, for understanding, and, if it so choose─for sacrifice.
Those of our race who have deliberately looked upon the scroll and found there nothing to read, who have lifted the curtain and found beyond it nothing to see, have faced their conclusions with a nobility which should determine us; for that nobility does prove, or, if it does not prove, compels us to proclaim, that the soul of man which breeds it has somewhere a lasting home. The conclusion is imperative.
Let not any one pretend in his faith that his faith is immediately evident and everywhere acceptable. There is in all who pretend to judgment a sense of the doubt that lies between the one conviction and the other, and all acknowledge that the scales swing normally upon the beam for normal men. But they swing─and one is the heavier.
The poets, who are our interpreters, know well and can set forth the contrast between such intimations and such despair.
The long descent of wasted days
To these at last have led me down:
Remember that I filled with praise
The meaningless and doubtful ways
That lead to an eternal town.
Moreover, since we have spoken of the night it is only reasonable to consider the alternate dawn. The quality of light, its merry action on the mind, the daylit sky under whose benediction we repose and in which our kind has always seen the picture of its final place: are these then visions and deceits?
~Hilaire Belloc: in On Something.