Issues of Life
HENRY NELSON WIEMAN
Chaper IV: Goods of the Good Life
THERE are two possible ways of winning the goods of the good life. One is by accident and the other is by intelligent solving of problems. What comes by accident is beyond our control, hence can be ignored. Thus the only way to achieve the good life which can lay any claim upon our attention is the way of solving practical problems through the exercise of intelligence. There is no other possible way of practicing art or religion or philosophy or anything else which will yield these goods. Nothing but intelligence can procure them. If they come in any other way, it is only by accident.But the solving of practical problems is not merely a matter of formulating and testing rational theories. The forming and testing of theories is a part; but often the more important part consists in controlling and establishing personal attitudes and habits of body and mind. “Life is more than logic,” it is sometimes said, and that statement is sometimes offered as an excuse for resorting to something else than cold intelligence to attain the high values of life. Of course life is more than logic. It is habit and personal attitude, it is metabolism and emotion
and much else. But all these activities must be brought under the control of intelligence if we are to enter into the highway of life by any other way than by accident. In the first chapter we described a method by which to apply intelligence to these multiform activities of life.Solving a practical problem becomes a religious matter when the problem is so important, and we take it so seriously, that in trying to solve it we are forced to take into consideration that which we believe to be the ultimate factor determining our destiny and the most important object for all human living. Thus the most important problems always require religious treatment if they are to be solved aright. The solving of them must be a kind of worshipful problem-solving. The method described in the first chapter is pre-eminently that.Some of the goods to be sought by this method of solving problems are health, wealth, skill, vision, selective memory, and transmutation of failure. By vision we mean the integration of means and ends. By selective memory we mean the preservation and accumulation of those precious experiences which make life gracious and abounding. Each of these six is worthy of a chapter to itself, and books have been written about every one of them. Every human life must experience all of these in some measure else it cannot be human. He who does not have some health and some of the economic necessities
which we call wealth, cannot live at all. The importance of skill and the good of selective memory for a life which would be more than animal will be apparent. Finally, the last great art of living is the art of how to fail.
HEALTH, WEALTH AND SKILL
Health can be attained and maintained only by meeting the physical and physiological conditions such as fresh air, sunlight, wholesome food, sleep, interesting work, recreation in due proportion, and the attention of a good doctor when needed. What, then, has problem-solving got to do with health? Above all, what has religion got to do with it? Nothing at all, many will, say. But he who asks such a question has failed to see what is involved in the intelligent solving of a practical problem. It means, among other things, the discovery by use of intelligence, and the establishment by methods intelligently designed, of those habits and attitudes of personality which will enable one to do things which are required to attain the end desired. The end desired in this case is health. We all know far more concerning what we ought to do in order to have good health than we ever put into practice. Furthermore, we never can put what we know into practice with that invariability and completeness which we must do if we are to have the best possible health, unless we have the necessary habits and personal attitudes.
Here is where the method of solving practical problems plays its part. We must be able to examine ourselves, and overhaul our habits in light of the best knowledge we are able to get concerning the requirements of health. We must be able to examine critically our way of living, with the help of a doctor or psychiatrist when necessary. And when we discover what is wrong, we must be able, again with outside help when that is needed, to reconstruct our habits and establish those which are needed. All this is an exceedingly great art, even when a doctor lends his assistance. We have described in the first chapter a method which we believe is helpful to this end.The various values of life go together, and what is conducive to one is often helpful to another. He who practices co-operative adjustment with his intimate associates and with the larger group, and who establishes and guards a worthy life-purpose with the organization of all activities and with the peace of mind which that gives, will have much to help him in developing those habits which make for the basic value of health. But the solution of the problem of health consists in establishing those habits which are conducive to health; and the establishment of such habits is a kind of problem-solving.Wealth is the second of the goods we are considering. Wealth in any quantity sufficient for the free and satisfactory conduct of life is rarely
gotten by the simple method of being faithful and diligent and serviceable. Economic goods, which are wealth, are to-day produced by a vast and enormously complicated system of activities which includes machinery as one of its most important components along with human labor and management. This complicated industrial and financial system transforms the raw materials of nature into the utilities we call wealth and is able to turn out enormous quantities of goods chiefly because of the mechanical inventions .of science during the last fifty years. This vast system has many spigots through which the wealth it produces is poured out in the form of wages or salaries or commissions or profits. Now, the way an individual obtains wealth in a world dominated by this impersonal and mechanical system of production is not primarily by rendering good service, but it is by getting under one of these spigots through which the golden stream is poured. Of course a business is not likely to prosper unless it renders good service. But that is not the point we are making. Our point is that the individual man who derives the greatest wealth from that business is not necessarily he who renders the most service in it; but it is he who is located in that financially strategic position where he can hold his bag under the biggest stream of wealth which the business pours forth.Men who acquire great wealth may be of great
service to society, but their wealth does not come to them because of the service they render. It comes to them because, either by accident or by their own maneuvers, they get under the right spigot. Sometimes accident throws a man under the golden stream and he could not escape it if he tried, although it generally requires a good deal of scheming to stay there when others are fighting to reach the same place. But whether it be due to accident or to clever scheming or to both, this is the way all great wealth is obtained in our modern world of vast impersonal organization where the economic system works like a huge machine. He who stands under the spigot gets the wealth regardless of anything else he may do. Furthermore, this is not due to anything peculiar to the system of capitalism. On the contrary, It seems rather to indicate the decline of capitalism if by capitalism is meant the constructive upbuilding of the economic system by private enterprise. There was a time when the “captain of industry” could render great service in building up the structure of the industrial order of production through the exercise of free initiative. But that time is past. Now wealth is obtained by controlling investments and financial organization, and these are by no means identical with promoting the efficiency and scope of industrial production and distribution of goods. This decline in the value of the service rendered to economic production by
private enterprise is a decline in the most important value which capitalism has to offer.But if capitalism should be suddenly or gradually supplanted and any other kind of economic order now being proposed should rise in its place, the spigot method of getting wealth would still prevail. The amount of wealth which any individual could obtain might be greatly limited,’ but whatever wealth came his way would be due to the fact that he held some strategic position where the economic system debouched its store. We do not even mean to suggest that this disjunction between service rendered and wealth obtained is a bad thing. We are not at all convinced that the best inducement to the most valuable service is the wealth which such service may offer. Therefore this disjunction, which makes wealth no longer the necessary outcome and measure of important service rendered, may be the very condition under which other inducements to high achievement will have an opportunity to show themselves in many occupations. The old tradition still dominates the minds of many people that service rendered and wealth acquired go together, and as long as this childish illusion prevails, the full significance of the disjunction we have been describing will not be noted and its rightful psychological effect will not occur. But the illusion will probably pass in time, and when it does, the psychological effects of this separation between service ren
dered and wealth acquired may be much better than if the two were united.But since there is this separation between wealth and significant and interesting achievement, they who are intelligent enough to see it must plan their lives accordingly. Since wealth does not regularly come as the reward and inevitable outcome of important constructive achievement, it is impossible for a man to devote himself with single mind to his work, as though the economic question would take care of itself. It will not take care of itself. Therefore the man who engages in work which is worthy of high devotion must do two things. He must, first, devote himself to his work and bring it to the highest fulfillment possible. Then, in the second place, he must do something else quite different, and he must not deceive himself into thinking the two are the same. This second thing he must do is to maneuver himself and his work in such a way that he will never be beyond the reach of one of the sizable spigots from which the economic necessities are procured.In making the above statement we are assuming that the mere striving to get under one of the spigots and stay there is not significant work, and he who makes that his chief interest is not doing anything which is worthy of high devotion. Doubtless, there will always be many people who will make this the chief preoccupation of all their days just as there will always
be many people who waste their lives on all manner of foolish and trivial matters. As a matter of fact, people who make it their chief business in life to get their bag under the biggest spigot and keep it there, display serious psychological maladies which are quite conspicuous in modern life. But the merits and demerits of such a way of life lie outside the scope of our present consideration, just as do the merits and demerits of a life of thievery, murder, prostitution, and many other preoccupations of man.We are assuming that a man follows somne calling which is interesting, important, and satisfying, and are asserting that if he does, he cannot assumne that it will yield adequate financial reward. Therefore anyone who lives such a life must solve a double problem: first, the problem of promoting his work, and, second, the problem of securing the needed wealth. The two do not become identical, as some often think.So we conclude there are two kinds of fools in this matter of wealth, and which is worse it is hard to say. The first fool is he who thinks that because he is making money legitimately he therefore is rendering worthy service or doing important work. The conclusion does not necessarily follow at all. The second kind of fool is he who thinks that because he is giving his life to noble work he therefore does not need to think about such mundane matters as wealth. On the contrary, precisely because his chosen work is
not automatically remunerative he must give all the more attention to the financial problem. He must discipline his mind and his every impulse so that he can do his work and at the same time procure the economic necessities. It is a matter of developing requisite habits and mental attitudes by the method described in the first chapter. He who trusts to the ravens is assuming a kind of piety which merely serves as a cloak to conceal his own self-indulgence in refusing to subject himself to the self-discipline and energetic action which are necessary if a man is going to do significant work and at the same time procure the needed wealth. To combine these two is a difficult achievement, yet either one of these two without the other falls short of the good life.The third component of any good life is skill. Every man must have some particular kind of work in which he has a sense of mastery, else he has missed the high fulfillment of life. This mastery may be in some very humble kind of activity. How lowly it be is not important, but it is important that there be high art and mastery in the doing of it. The man who comes around the block once a month with a grindstone and a bell to sharpen knives and axes has the needed skill. He takes pride in his ability to sharpen steel and his life is triumphant in consequence. A young chauffeur at the front in the Great War had to drive a car at great speed
under all manner of conditions. But he was an expert and he knew it. “I can hold her nose to the road,” he said, “at ninety miles an hour, good roads or bad, daylight or dark, rain or shine.” And there was the ditch digger of whom John Hays wrote:“I’ll dig a ditch so straight and trueAlmighty God can look it through.”There are health, wealth, and skill, but the greatest of these is skill. If a man had to choose between having, on the one hand, abounding health and great wealth, but without ability to do anything with skill and so unable to respect himself or command the respect of others, or, on the other hand, superb mastery in some chosen work, but with poor health and poverty, the latter would be the better choice. But all three are needed and should be sought by every resource that art, science, religion, and philosophy may provide.
The fourth problem to be solved, if the good life is to be attained, is the integration of means and ends. A means is sometimes called an instrumental experience, while an end is a consummatory experience. Or the two may be distinguished by calling the one extrinsic value and the other intrinsic, or the first mediate value and the other immediate. We shall use the
terms “instrumental” and “consummatory” or else simply “means” and “ends.”One reason this is such an important problem is that the instrumental process is so often a disvalue. In order to attain some good we must do something that is disagreeable. I work that I may eat. Eating is the consummatory value; working has instrumental value only, or at least that seems to be the implication of the old adage, “He who eats must work.” The working is painful or monotonous or in some way is an evil that must be endured for the sake of the good to follow. The experience of the dentist’s chair must be endured for the sake of consequent health and comfort.As long as consummatory values can be increased only by means of instrumentalities that are nasty and evil, the question is always pertinent whether the net result is really an increase of good; and in any case there is always the price to be paid which must be subtracted from the good of the end attained. As long as the instrumentalities of life hold this status, life is always a problem of the bargain counter. How much evil shall I pay for how much good? The bargain is often a doubtful one.In the light of this contrast between the instrumental and consummatory we may say that one of the supreme problems in the increase of good is the problem of how to make instrumental processes consummatory while at the same time
retaining their instrumental efficiency. It is also the problem of how to make consummatory experiences instrumental without any loss of their consummatory value. In other words, we cannot hope to increase the good of life very much unless we are able to integrate the instrumental and the consummatory in such a way that we can find our great positive value of experience in instrumental process itself; and also find in great consummatory experience that which is productive of further good on beyond itself. This unification of the instrumental and the consummatory into one experience is the great problem.To be able to distinguish between means and ends and to detach one from the other is a great gain in some respects. It enables us to experiment, to devise tools deliberately as well as other instrumentalities, to recognize that there may be undiscovered possibilities and possibilities that have never yet been actualized. Also it enables us to force ourselves to do what we otherwise would not want to do for the sake of ultimate ends to be attained. It enables us to act contrary to what we call the “natural impulse,” to discipline ourselves, to suppress the impulse aroused by the immediate good for the sake of a more remote good. All this we do not find among the lower animals to any marked degree. Neither do we find it among men except where men have mastered symbolized meaning and have brought
all their lives under the control of such symbols. Animals, children, primitive people do not do that which is painful or disagreeable unless they are driven to it by fear of greater ill in the very near future. The remote future can shape their lives only when by means of symbols they are able to represent it so that they feel its importance along with the present. It is only when symbols illuminate the far-off goods and ills that we can work for them and for the sake of them undergo long, laborious, and painful processes that are purely instrumental.Plainly, this foresight—this planning and working for the future—has its advantages, but it also has its evil. Its evil arises when there is disjunction between the means and ends. The evil consists in undergoing long, disagreeable instrumental processes for the sake of consummatory ends that are unproductive and transitory. The end is enjoyable, but the means is not. Often the disjunction is so extreme that the end cannot be enjoyed unless the means is carefully and completely excluded from all share in it; and the means cannot be efficiently accomplished unless all enjoyment of the end is excluded from it. Much menial labor is of this sort. Often people who prepare the food are not the ones who enjoy it. The people who prepare, as well as all instruments and materials of the preparation, are kept in the kitchen, while the people who enjoy it stay in the dining room and
move in a wholly different sphere. Thus two wholly different and mutually exclusive worlds are developed—the world of consummatory values and the world of instrumental values.We do not mean to suggest that the people who prepare the food never have any consummatory experiences nor that the people who enjoy it never do anything instrumental, although both these extremes are sometimes approached. Our only point is that this bifurcation of the world into the mutual exclusiveness of instrumental and consummatory is a fact and constitutes one of the most serious problems.How can this bifurcation be overcome or its evil reduced? It must be overcome by the use of symbols. Symbols have created the evil and symbols must be used to cure it. Symbols can be used and must be used to make the instrumental processes of life yield satisfaction in themselves; and also make the consummatory experiences productive of further values. This is accomplished when organic attitudes, meanings, and physical conditions are adjusted to one another in such a way that the instrumental process becomes a part of the end that is sought, and the end is just that totality which includes the means as one of its essential constituents. The means is then that part of the totality called the end which happens to lend itself most readily to our control. We call it the means simply because it is that part of the end which is most accessible
and controllable. It is, as it were, the handle by which we grasp the end. Thus a woman may work to keep her home in order, but in this work find one of the chief ways of enjoying the home. A parent may labor to care for a child, but in this labor find the chief way to enter into the consummatory experience of parenthood. The labor is not a means which, while being performed, excludes the enjoyment of the end, but it is, rather, the way the end is enjoyed. A man may read and study as a means to his education, but this reading and study mnay also be the way in which he experiences the value of the education. Jacob could serve seven years for the hand of Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days for the love he bore her. The labor was itself the experience of love.Thus we have two kinds of means and ends, or two ways in which means and ends may be related. In the one case means and ends are mutually exclusive. In the other case they constitute a single totality. In the one case the means cannot be efficient nor the end enjoyable unless the two are kept apart. In the other case there can be neither efficiency nor enjoyment unless the two are integrated. The problem of the good life cannot be solved until we make this integration of means and ends to prevail more and more.One of the first and most important steps in this integration of means and ends is the elim
ination of that kind of consummatory experience which is wholly nonproductive, which merely consumes what has been produced without producing anything of value. As long as we seek such ends there can be no integration of means and ends. As long as we prize that kind of enjoyment which merely burns up what has been laboriously and patiently produced, but produces nothing to take its place, the problem cannot be solved.Our enjoyment will be productive and instrumental as well as consummatory when we learn to appreciate those great but difficult values which consist in structures of far-reaching possibility. When the joy of the present moment arises out of meaning, and when that meaning consists in the construction and control of possibilities yet to be achieved, it is plain that such a joy is productive and instrumental as well as consummatory. It is also plain that such a joy cannot consist in burning up what has been produced without putting something else of value in its place, because in such joy the future must be taken into consideration. To enjoy the unproductive moment, attention must be given to the immediate and transitory present and be turned away from the construction and control of possibilities. But when the joy of the present moment is due to the. apprehension of far possibilities which are promoted by what we are now doing, then present experience shares the joy of
remote consummations and at the same time preserves its instrumental efficiency. Also the remnote consummation, when it is reached, is experienced in such a way as to make it productive of further consummations. This integration of remote possibilities with the activity of the present, so that present activity has these possibilities as its meaning, is what we call vision.Thus symbols and meaning properly used provide the cure for the kind of evil we are considering by eliminating that kind of consummatory experience which is not instrumental and by making instrumental activity an organic part of the consummation through the bond of meaning.But it is not at all certain that all necessary instrumental processes of human life can be made to yield consummatory experience through the use of symbols and meaning. Certainly it can never be done as long as great numbers of people enjoy the products of the toil and suffering of others without making their enjoyment a form of producing further goods and thus sharing in the great community of life in which each mnan’s good is every man’s good and the good of all is the good of each through communication and universal participation in the common enterprise of bringing forth the highest possibilities of value. But even supposing this community of meaning and effort were achieved, or much more nearly approximated than is now the case, and supposing there were not parasitic
indulgence in the enjoyment of goods which other men have produced, still even then it is highly doubtful if all the drudgery and pain of the world could be made enjoyable by integrating them through meaning and symbol with the highest fulfillments of life. The reason it cannot be done is because the physical conditions of much labor and suffering are of such sort as to make it impossible for the individual to discern such meaning in his experience. First of all, of course, the organic connection must be established between the labor and suffering of the lowliest on the one hand, and the highest consummations of life on the other. That we have already noted. For without that there would be no integrating meaning to discern. But even after this connection is established, we say, it may be impossible for the individual to discern the meaning, and experience the value of it, because of the physical conditions under which he is placed. He may accept the proposition as true that his suffering and labor do promote the total and common enterprise of all human living in striving for the highest values. But the mere intellectual apprehension of it is not sufficient. This meaning must engender the appropriate organic attitude, the correlative functioning of glands and viscera, else the value is not experienced. But it is just this organic attitude which is often made impossible by the circumstances imposed by the labor.
What, then, can be done with this disjunction of means and ends after the closest possible organic connection has been established between the activities and experiences of all men through the highest development of communication, through the reconstruction of political and economic structures, and the fullest use of symbols? The only further thing that can be done is to reduce to the minimum those physical conditions which render impossible the full appreciation of meaning in the doing of any labor or suffering any other evil. Whether these physical conditions, which shut out from the common and total good of life all who suffer them, can be brought to a lower minimum by increasing the total output of economic goods, or by returning to greater poverty for all human kind, is not for the present writer to say. But whatever may be required, the condition should be met. For the greatest good for all can never be reached as long as these physical conditions are not reduced to the utmost. Also, whether everyone should take his turn at this instrumental experience which cannot be made a way of participating in the consummatory experiences of life, is a further queslion to be settled. But the essential principle of the solution seems to be plain. All instrumental and consummatory experiences should, so far as possible, be bound together into a single organic totality by the highest possible development of meaning and communication through proper use
of symbols. In this way all pain and labor that would otherwise be purely instrumental becomes a way of sharing in the highest good of life. And the highest good is progressively productive of further good. The last great obstacle to this end, we have noted, which may never be wholly eliminated, but only reduced to some minimum, is the physical conditions which make it impossible for the individual who is placed under them to share in this meaning of life.
The fifth essential good of life is the preservation and accumulation of experiences which give to life its utmost loveliness. These are, preeminently, of two kinds—asthetic and intimately social.Aesthetic experience of natural and artistic objects contributes more richly to the good of life than most people recognize. They do not know how much they themselves are blessed in this way. When I walk outdoors on a spring day and am glad, I may not know that it is the beauty of the day which makes me so happy. The colors and shapes of a room may be clearly and vividly discerned; but even when they are not, they may fill me with a vague sense of rich loveliness the source of which I may not clearly discriminate. There is probably a streak of aesthetic experience, now wide and rich, now thin and meager, but more or less continuously run-
ning throughout most of our waking hours, and possibly also in sleep in the form of dreams. But our sensitivity and deep organic responsiveness to the colors and shapes and sounds and images which yield this experience, can be cultivated and thus the stream made wider and richer and more continuous.There is generally some particular form of beauty which appeals most to an individual and contributes most to this sense of loveliness. For some it may be music, for others poetry. It may be natural scenes of sky and wood and sea and mountain and plain; or human faces, figures, dress, and movements. But whatever it be, it is something which should be cultivated as one of the great goods of life.The cultivation of this value has two sides. One we have already noted. Our sensitivity must be cultivated so that whenever and wherever these forms of beauty appear they shall not pass us by without some response on our part. But there is another side to the matter which is equally important, although its importance is not so commonly recognized. After these forms of color and sound and rhythm and. imagery, in art and nature, have been apprehended, one must cherish the vision of them. One must recall the loveliness so that it can stand before him ever anew until it comes at last to haunt him through the months and years. These precious experiences should be ever ready to float
before him in ghostly presence so that, whenever his mind is free and nothing else demands his attention, there will come to him not some feeling of bitterness or envy or fear or worry, but, rather, the lilt of a song or the rhythm of a poem.“What are you doing, little day moon, Over the April hill,What are you doing up so soon, Climbing the sky with silver shoon, What are you doing at half past noon, Slipping along so still?”When he is too weary to think—or perhaps he is just waiting for a train—there visits him the vision of the mountains he saw in his youth, cold blue and streaked white, with a gleam that stabs the sky forever. When he has been ill and lies alone regaining his strength, there softly floats before his mind that scene in a deep wood at the foot of the Hartz Mountains. The trees rose high and met above his head so that no sunlight came through. But in the distance through the trunks he saw a shining light, and when he drew near he discovered what made the opening in the forest. There was a huge gray-blue granite bowlder and over it foamed a little cascade falling into a deep, dark pool. A bit of a rainbow shimmered in the spray and at the side ofThe present writer does not know the author of these lines. He found them on a newspaper clipping posted in a public library.
the pool a great scarlet flower with its nodding image in the rippling water.But there is another kind of experience which must also be cherished in the mind until it rises from the memory whenever the mind is free. Rare and beautiful experiences of friendship must follow us through the years like a trailing cloud. They are so precious and rare they must not be allowed to lapse into oblivion. To that end one will deliberately draw aside from time to time and there in solitude call them up and count them over one by one as you count beads upon a rosary. This will be his worship with his rosary of precious memories.What we shall remember of the past is partly under our control. Some memories can be cultivated. We all have had experiences which embitter and degrade; and we all have had experiences which bless and sanctify. These last can be preserved in memnory if we make it our business to keep them fresh and vivid. The world is cold and mean enough, but there are moments when a tender, trembling beauty falls upon it as from another realm. These moments must not be lost. Minds that remember can keep them. It is the high vocation of art to preserve them in symbol and story; and the growing tradition of the human race must accumulate them through the centuries. Thus a heritage may be gathered and transmitted to each generation with an added store of gracious and noble tradition, carried by
every symbol at our command, by the modulation of the voice, the gesture and attitude of the body, and the whole manner of life. Thus man acquires a spirit, a trailing cloud of lovely light.The part of each individual in this total enterprise is to preserve his own most precious experiences until his own personality radiates their graciousness and delicacy and tenderness. This he can do by observing seasons of worship when he takes out his rosary of memories—the lilt of a song, the rhythm of a poem, a scarlet flower reflected in a dark pool, the look on someone’s face, the touch of a vanished hand. This rosary he must wear so close to his heart that it becomes a part of his personality and in seasons of worshipful meditation be must count the pearls until he comes to the cross at the end.How TO FAILFailure is inevitable. No man can escape it, somewhere, sometime, to some degree. As truly as every man has a rendezvous with death so also everyone somewhere, on some disputed barricade, has a rendezvous with failure. He who thinks he never has failed and never will is blinded by conceit and foolish optimism. Hence the problem is, how to fail. When failure comes, as come it must, how can I deal with it? Can I transform it from a total liability into some kind of an asset?The two alternative ways of life are not that
you have here a life that is all success and there a life that is all failure, but, rather, here you have a life with great successes and great failures and there a life with little successes and little failures. The oniy way to avoid great failures is to avoid great successes, to hug the shore, never venture out into the deep, never attempt anything too difficult, keep well within the bounds of assured achievement. In that way a man can avoid all failures except one. That one is to fail to live the good life.There are two kinds of failure. One is the failure of a particular enterprise and the other is the failure of a lifetime. One is occasional failure and the other grand failure. These two must be treated in different ways. The good to be extracted from occasional failure is wisdom. There are some things we can learn from the testimony of others; and some we learn by thinking them out for ourselves. But the most important and subtle wisdom of life cannot be put into words nor symbolized in any way. It cannot be learned from others nor by observation nor by constructive exercise of imagination. It can only be gathered from experience, and that means experience of failure. Some men have garnered deep wisdom from failure, but others with just as much experience of it have learned nothing. Failure will yield unwordable wisdom of life if it is faced in the right way, but otherwise not.
How must one deal with failure to make it serve the good life? First of all the fact of failure must be admitted. This is a hard saying and for some people almost impossible. Often we conceal the fact of failure by an unconscious mechanism which the psychologists call projection. We blame the failure on someone else. Perhaps it was the fault of the institution or simply “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” But it was not I. When I strike at the nail and hit my thumb I first suck my thumb and then kick the cat. We preserve our self-respect by devious ways.There is another device by which we quite subconsciously hide our failures out of sight. Not only did we not fail, but nothing has gone wrong. We assume a beaming attitude toward everything and everybody and all is sweet and beautiful. This might be called pollyannism. This is a very popular attitude and is supported by a popular philosophy. This popular philosophy asserts: “Never admit failure. Always affirm success. Always think success.” That sounds nice and feels nicer still. But it has one difficulty. The difficulty is that he who never admits the fact of failure, and never notes what led up to it and what issued from it, will never learn the lesson that it had to teach him. He will never gain that deep wisdom which conscious recognition and examination of one’s own failures can give.
Here we have one of the most fundamental differences between men. On the one hand we have those who prefer illusion to reality when reality is difficult or otherwise unpleasant, and who always develop an illusion to conceal reality when the latter becomes very bitter, although this they do quite unconsciously through the exercise of a subconscious mental attitude. On the other hand are those who prefer reality to illusion no matter how sweet the illusion may be and no matter how bitter the reality. They prefer reality, for one thing, because they have that kind of religion which seeks the best that reality has to offer, and while this particular bit of reality may not be good, they know that if they play fast and loose with reality, they can never follow it far enough and close enough to find the best that ever may be. The implication of the attitude of the first group is that the best that ever may be is an illusion, although they may not consciously profess this. The implication of the second group is that some form of that kind of reality which is not an illusion is the best that life can ever attain. Which is right is perhaps a question that can never be conclusively demonstrated. The difference here is so basic that it forms a chasm which can scarcely be bridged by any sort of argument.One of the chief reasons why people shun reality when it is disagreeable, and especially that kind of disagreeable reality called failure,
is because, if they admitted it, they would lose their courage. Their zest and drive would fail. To preserve these they must constantly affirm success and think success, even when the truth is not success, but failure. Perhaps the chief argument against the way of sweet illusion lies right here. He who cherishes illusions to keep up his courage and his zeal becomes less and less able to face disagreeable reality until at last he must wrap himself so deeply in dreams that he cannot live at all unless others protect and keep him. He must then become a parasite or perish. As a matter of fact, perhaps most people who are greatly addicted to illusion are parasites.The whole problem of dealing with occasional failure, then, resolves itself to this: How can I face the fact of failure, especially when it is disastrous, and at the same time keep up my courage so that striving will be unabated? How face failure without despair? This is possible when a man considers his own personality and his whole life simply as a tool for the service of some cause. Then he can look at himself and his own efforts objectively, impersonally, as he would look at any tool and its work. Then any defect of the tool or any fault in its work is simply something to correct. Self-consciousness is removed. A sense of one’s own success, one’s own self-respect and honor and dignity, is eliminated. There is simply the tool called myself to be used for whatever it is worth, and the cause to be
promoted in whatever measure this tool can promote it. Since the cause is greater than oneself and does not depend upon the success or failure of one’s own efforts, although it is hindered or promoted thereby, all sensitivity about the success and failure of oneself is cast out. Thus failure does not bring despair nor success conceit, because the self and the personal life of the individual are subordinated to something much greater. Father Vaillant, in Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, is an excellent example of this way of living. When one looks at himself in such a manner, he can admit failure when it occurs without a sense of despair or loss of driving propulsion, and so learn the wisdom which failures may give.But the failure of a lifetime is another matter. In such failure wisdom is of no value, for the individual has only the one life to live. If he could live his life over again, the failure of his first life might be of value in teaching him how better to live the next time. But that is impossible so far as we know. Is there, then, any way to redeem grand failure?Here we come to a very remarkable fact. Apparently the greatest personalities in history, measuring greatness by the magnitude of their influence, have lived what can only be called a lifetime failure so far as their own achievement was concerned. Three such personalities we would mention. The last of these three is not
yet a failure, for he is still living, but it is quite likely that the total enterprise of his life will go down in the end to most overwhelming failure. Things seem to point that way. The three we have in mind are Jesus, Socrates, and Ghandi.. Ghandi has not yet failed, but he probably will; and if he does, it will be a lifetime of failure from which he can gather no wisdom which will help him, for his course will be run.Socrates spent all his life trying to find the truth by clarifying concepts. The Sophists had made it seem that there were no principles of right or wrong or true or false that were sufficiently fixed to be trustworthy for the conduct of life. Socrates spent his life trying to establish such principles. But he never succeeded. He never established a single one. While scholars differ concerning just what Socrates did accomplish, it seems that his major objective was never reached. The truth concerning true and false and right and wrong escaped him. He was no better than the Sophists whom he sought to refute, so far as concerned any definite accomplishment of his own. The chief difference between him and them was that his life was a failure because he tried to do otherwise, while their lives were not failures because they succeeded in doing what they tried to do. When the oracle said Socrates was the wisest man, lie was puzzled at first, but finally explained it by saying that while nobody knew any-
timing, he knew he knew nothing, while others did not know that much. He might have added that while he tried to know and failed, others did not try and so did not fail.That the life of Jesus was a failure in the same sense, we believe all must admit. The crowd never understood him. and had abandoned him before the end. A little handful of followers still clung to him, but he failed. to do with them what he had given his life to accomplish. They never understood him. They never shared his purpose. They felt there was something sublime about him. They followed him with dog-like devotion. Dumbly and miserably and all perplexed they followed him to the end, but they never got what he sought to transmit to them. During his life they misunderstood him and after his death they worshiped him in a way he would have forbidden. In both cases they failed to share his vision and promote his purpose.What will be the end of Ghandi’s unbelievable career no one can say. He has done what no one could have dreamed was possible. Already he is well-nigh a myth. But surely he cannot succeed with the world as it is. We would judge that the only outcome Is a failure in which the whole movement of peaceful non-co-operation which he has so laboriously and. painfully built up throughout his life will be swept away in blood and violence. But after the centuries have passed, Ghandi will probably take his place
along with those other paradoxical personalities who somehow by means of their very failure have wielded an influence greater than others.How can this paradox be explained, that failure has exerted such an enormous influence? We believe it is not far to seek. No man can drive me to follow an untrodden trail save the man who has failed to tread it. No man can lead me to build a house save he who has himself not built it. Men cannot be roused to carry through the great revolutionary achievements of history requiring centuries of labor and sacrifice by mere exhortation. A single individual can be a persistent influence in leading many generations in such an undertaking only if he has won the hearts of men and grandly failed. This, we believe, explains the paradox.We have spoken of world-famous characters. The same principle, in a smaller way, applies to inconspicuous figures. Someone whom we have known and loved, who strove to do a work and failed, has probably shaped our lives more potently than any other. Such a one has left a heritage. Thus the failure of a lifetime is transmuted. The man who succeeds may inspire me to do what he has done; but the only man who can lead me to strive to do what he has never done is he who has tried and failed to do it.Perhaps that striving after the unattained possibilities of life, which is the chief characteristic of the human animal and the only excuse
for his restless, rebellious, chaotic and dangerous existence, is a striving which springs anew in each generation because of the influence of devoted lives that have failed. With the breath of these lives upon us we are not deaf to the call of something on beyond. Their efforts were exploratory and experimental, and hence their failure served to unveil possibilities which lure us after they are gone. He who learns to fail this way shall not have failed in vain. But he must keep close to the hearts of men.