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Title: Optimism - An Essay
Author: Keller, Helen, 1880-1968
Language: English
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                               Optimism


                            [Illustration]


                               Optimism
                               An Essay
                            By Helen Keller
                               Author of
                        “The Story of My Life”


                            [Illustration]


                               New York
                       T. Y. Crowell and Company
                               Mdcccciii

                   Copyright, 1903, by Helen Keller

                       Published November, 1903

              D. B. Updike, The Merrymount Press, Boston



To My Teacher



Contents


  Part i
  Optimism Within               11


  Part ii
  Optimism Without              25


  Part iii
  The Practice of Optimism      53



Part i. Optimism Within

[Illustration]



Part i

Optimism Within


Could we choose our environment, and were desire in human undertakings
synonymous with endowment, all men would, I suppose, be optimists.
Certainly most of us regard happiness as the proper end of all earthly
enterprise. The will to be happy animates alike the philosopher, the
prince and the chimney-sweep. No matter how dull, or how mean, or how
wise a man is, he feels that happiness is his indisputable right.

It is curious to observe what different ideals of happiness people
cherish, and in what singular places they look for this well-spring of
their life. Many look for it in the hoarding of riches, some in the
pride of power, and others in the achievements of art and literature;
a few seek it in the exploration of their own minds, or in the search
for knowledge.

Most people measure their happiness in terms of physical pleasure and
material possession. Could they win some visible goal which they have
set on the horizon, how happy they would be! Lacking this gift or that
circumstance, they would be miserable. If happiness is to be so
measured, I who cannot hear or see have every reason to sit in a
corner with folded hands and weep. If I am happy in spite of my
deprivations, if my happiness is so deep that it is a faith, so
thoughtful that it becomes a philosophy of life,--if, in short, I am
an optimist, my testimony to the creed of optimism is worth hearing.
As sinners stand up in meeting and testify to the goodness of God, so
one who is called afflicted may rise up in gladness of conviction and
testify to the goodness of life.

Once I knew the depth where no hope was, and darkness lay on the face
of all things. Then love came and set my soul free. Once I knew only
darkness and stillness. Now I know hope and joy. Once I fretted and
beat myself against the wall that shut me in. Now I rejoice in the
consciousness that I can think, act and attain heaven. My life was
without past or future; death, the pessimist would say, “a
consummation devoutly to be wished.” But a little word from the
fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and
my heart leaped to the rapture of living. Night fled before the day
of thought, and love and joy and hope came up in a passion of
obedience to knowledge. Can anyone who has escaped such captivity, who
has felt the thrill and glory of freedom, be a pessimist?

My early experience was thus a leap from bad to good. If I tried, I
could not check the momentum of my first leap out of the dark; to move
breast forward is a habit learned suddenly at that first moment of
release and rush into the light. With the first word I used
intelligently, I learned to live, to think, to hope. Darkness cannot
shut me in again. I have had a glimpse of the shore, and can now live
by the hope of reaching it.

So my optimism is no mild and unreasoning satisfaction. A poet once
said I must be happy because I did not see the bare, cold present, but
lived in a beautiful dream. I do live in a beautiful dream; but that
dream is the actual, the present,--not cold, but warm; not bare, but
furnished with a thousand blessings. The very evil which the poet
supposed would be a cruel disillusionment is necessary to the fullest
knowledge of joy. Only by contact with evil could I have learned to
feel by contrast the beauty of truth and love and goodness.

It is a mistake always to contemplate the good and ignore the evil,
because by making people neglectful it lets in disaster. There is a
dangerous optimism of ignorance and indifference. It is not enough to
say that the twentieth century is the best age in the history of
mankind, and to take refuge from the evils of the world in skyey
dreams of good. How many good men, prosperous and contented, looked
around and saw naught but good, while millions of their fellowmen were
bartered and sold like cattle! No doubt, there were comfortable
optimists who thought Wilberforce a meddlesome fanatic when he was
working with might and main to free the slaves. I distrust the rash
optimism in this country that cries, “Hurrah, we’re all right! This is
the greatest nation on earth,” when there are grievances that call
loudly for redress. That is false optimism. Optimism that does not
count the cost is like a house builded on sand. A man must understand
evil and be acquainted with sorrow before he can write himself an
optimist and expect others to believe that he has reason for the faith
that is in him.

I know what evil is. Once or twice I have wrestled with it, and for a
time felt its chilling touch on my life; so I speak with knowledge
when I say that evil is of no consequence, except as a sort of mental
gymnastic. For the very reason that I have come in contact with it, I
am more truly an optimist. I can say with conviction that the struggle
which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us
strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of
things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it
is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest
on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of
good and a willing effort always to coöperate with the good, that it
may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the
best in everything and every one, and make that Best a part of my
life. The world is sown with good; but unless I turn my glad thoughts
into practical living and till my own field, I cannot reap a kernel of
the good.

Thus my optimism is grounded in two worlds, myself and what is about
me. I demand that the world be good, and lo, it obeys. I proclaim the
world good, and facts range themselves to prove my proclamation
overwhelmingly true. To what is good I open the doors of my being, and
jealously shut them against what is bad. Such is the force of this
beautiful and wilful conviction, it carries itself in the face of all
opposition. I am never discouraged by absence of good. I never can be
argued into hopelessness. Doubt and mistrust are the mere panic of
timid imagination, which the steadfast heart will conquer, and the
large mind transcend.

As my college days draw to a close, I find myself looking forward with
beating heart and bright anticipations to what the future holds of
activity for me. My share in the work of the world may be limited; but
the fact that it is work makes it precious. Nay, the desire and will
to work is optimism itself.

Two generations ago Carlyle flung forth his gospel of work. To the
dreamers of the Revolution, who built cloud-castles of happiness, and,
when the inevitable winds rent the castles asunder, turned
pessimists--to those ineffectual Endymions, Alastors and Werthers,
this Scots peasant, man of dreams in the hard, practical world, cried
aloud his creed of labor. “Be no longer a Chaos, but a World. Produce!
produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a
product, produce it, in God’s name! ’Tis the utmost thou hast in thee;
out with it, then. Up, up! whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it
with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day; for the Night
cometh wherein no man may work.”

Some have said Carlyle was taking refuge from a hard world by bidding
men grind and toil, eyes to the earth, and so forget their misery.
This is not Carlyle’s thought. “Fool!” he cries, “the Ideal is in
thyself; the Impediment is also in thyself. Work out the Ideal in the
poor, miserable Actual; live, think, believe, and be free!” It is
plain what he says, that work, production, brings life out of chaos,
makes the individual a world, an order; and order is optimism.

I, too, can work, and because I love to labor with my head and my
hands, I am an optimist in spite of all. I used to think I should be
thwarted in my desire to do something useful. But I have found out
that though the ways in which I can make myself useful are few, yet
the work open to me is endless. The gladdest laborer in the vineyard
may be a cripple. Even should the others outstrip him, yet the
vineyard ripens in the sun each year, and the full clusters weigh
into his hand. Darwin could work only half an hour at a time; yet in
many diligent half-hours he laid anew the foundations of philosophy. I
long to accomplish a great and noble task; but it is my chief duty and
joy to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. It
is my service to think how I can best fulfil the demands that each day
makes upon me, and to rejoice that others can do what I cannot. Green,
the historian,[1] tells us that the world is moved along, not only by
the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny
pushes of each honest worker; and that thought alone suffices to guide
me in this dark world and wide. I love the good that others do; for
their activity is an assurance that whether I can help or not, the
true and the good will stand sure.

    [1] Life and Letters of John Richard Green. Edited by Leslie Stephen.

I trust, and nothing that happens disturbs my trust. I recognize the
beneficence of the power which we all worship as supreme--Order, Fate,
the Great Spirit, Nature, God. I recognize this power in the sun that
makes all things grow and keeps life afoot. I make a friend of this
indefinable force, and straightway I feel glad, brave and ready for
any lot Heaven may decree for me. This is my religion of optimism.



Part ii. Optimism Without

[Illustration]



Part ii

Optimism Without


Optimism, then, is a fact within my own heart. But as I look out upon
life, my heart meets no contradiction. The outward world justifies my
inward universe of good. All through the years I have spent in
college, my reading has been a continuous discovery of good. In
literature, philosophy, religion and history I find the mighty
witnesses to my faith.

Philosophy is the history of a deaf-blind person writ large. From the
talks of Socrates up through Plato, Berkeley and Kant, philosophy
records the efforts of human intelligence to be free of the clogging
material world and fly forth into a universe of pure idea. A
deaf-blind person ought to find special meaning in Plato’s Ideal
World. These things which you see and hear and touch are not the
reality of realities, but imperfect manifestations of the Idea, the
Principle, the Spiritual; the Idea is the truth, the rest is delusion.

If this be so, my brethren who enjoy the fullest use of the senses are
not aware of any reality which may not equally well be in reach of my
mind. Philosophy gives to the mind the prerogative of seeing truth,
and bears us into a realm where I, who am blind, am not different from
you who see. When I learned from Berkeley that your eyes receive an
inverted image of things which your brain unconsciously corrects, I
began to suspect that the eye is not a very reliable instrument after
all, and I felt as one who had been restored to equality with others,
glad, not because the senses avail them so little, but because in
God’s eternal world, mind and spirit avail so much. It seemed to me
that philosophy had been written for my special consolation, whereby I
get even with some modern philosophers who apparently think that I was
intended as an experimental case for their special instruction! But in
a little measure my small voice of individual experience does join in
the declaration of philosophy that the good is the only world, and
that world is a world of spirit. It is also a universe where order is
All, where an unbroken logic holds the parts together, where disorder
defines itself as non-existence, where evil, as St. Augustine held, is
delusion, and therefore is not.

The meaning of philosophy to me is not only in its principles, but
also in the happy isolation of its great expounders. They were seldom
of the world, even when like Plato and Leibnitz they moved in its
courts and drawing-rooms. To the tumult of life they were deaf, and
they were blind to its distraction and perplexing diversities. Sitting
alone, but not in darkness, they learned to find everything in
themselves, and failing to find it even there, they still trusted in
meeting the truth face to face when they should leave the earth behind
and become partakers in the wisdom of God. The great mystics lived
alone, deaf and blind, but dwelling with God.

I understand how it was possible for Spinoza to find deep and
sustained happiness when he was excommunicated, poor, despised and
suspected alike by Jew and Christian; not that the kind world of men
ever treated me so, but that his isolation from the universe of
sensuous joys is somewhat analogous to mine. He loved the good for its
own sake. Like many great spirits he accepted his place in the world,
and confided himself childlike to a higher power, believing that it
worked through his hands and predominated in his being. He trusted
implicitly, and that is what I do. Deep, solemn optimism, it seems to
me, should spring from this firm belief in the presence of God in the
individual; not a remote, unapproachable governor of the universe, but
a God who is very near every one of us, who is present not only in
earth, sea and sky, but also in every pure and noble impulse of our
hearts, “the source and centre of all minds, their only point of
rest.”

Thus from philosophy I learn that we see only shadows and know only
in part, and that all things change; but the mind, the unconquerable
mind, compasses all truth, embraces the universe as it is, converts
the shadows to realities and makes tumultuous changes seem but moments
in an eternal silence, or short lines in the infinite theme of
perfection, and the evil but “a halt on the way to good.” Though with
my hand I grasp only a small part of the universe, with my spirit I
see the whole, and in my thought I can compass the beneficent laws by
which it is governed. The confidence and trust which these conceptions
inspire teach me to rest safe in my life as in a fate, and protect me
from spectral doubts and fears. Verily, blessed are ye that have not
seen, and yet have believed.

All the world’s great philosophers have been lovers of God and
believers in man’s inner goodness. To know the history of philosophy
is to know that the highest thinkers of the ages, the seers of the
tribes and the nations, have been optimists.

The growth of philosophy is the story of man’s spiritual life. Outside
lies that great mass of events which we call History. As I look on
this mass, I see it take form and shape itself in the ways of God. The
history of man is an epic of progress. In the world within and the
world without I see a wonderful correspondence, a glorious symbolism
which reveals the human and the divine communing together, the lesson
of philosophy repeated in fact. In all the parts that compose the
history of mankind hides the spirit of good, and gives meaning to the
whole.

Far back in the twilight of history I see the savage fleeing from the
forces of nature which he has not learned to control, and seeking to
propitiate supernatural beings which are but the creation of his
superstitious fear. With a shift of imagination I see the savage
emancipated, civilized. He no longer worships the grim deities of
ignorance. Through suffering he has learned to build a roof over his
head, to defend his life and his home, and over his state he has
erected a temple in which he worships the joyous gods of light and
song. From suffering he has learned justice; from the struggle with
his fellows he has learned the distinction between right and wrong
which makes him a moral being. He is gifted with the genius of Greece.

But Greece was not perfect. Her poetical and religious ideals were far
above her practice; therefore she died, that her ideals might survive
to ennoble coming ages.

Rome, too, left the world a rich inheritance. Through the
vicissitudes of history her laws and ordered government have stood a
majestic object-lesson for the ages. But when the stern, frugal
character of her people ceased to be the bone and sinew of her
civilization, Rome fell.

Then came the new nations of the North and founded a more permanent
society. The base of Greek and Roman society was the slave, crushed
into the condition of the wretches who “labored, foredone, in the
field and at the workshop, like haltered horses, if blind, so much the
quieter.” The base of the new society was the freeman who fought,
tilled, judged and grew from more to more. He wrought a state out of
tribal kinship and fostered an independence and self-reliance which no
oppression could destroy. The story of man’s slow ascent from savagery
through barbarism and self-mastery to civilization is the embodiment
of the spirit of optimism. From the first hour of the new nations each
century has seen a better Europe, until the development of the world
demanded America.

Tolstoi said the other day that America, once the hope of the world,
was in bondage to Mammon. Tolstoi and other Europeans have still much
to learn about this great, free country of ours before they understand
the unique civic struggle which America is undergoing. She is
confronted with the mighty task of assimilating all the foreigners
that are drawn together from every country, and welding them into one
people with one national spirit. We have the right to demand the
forbearance of critics until the United States has demonstrated
whether she can make one people out of all the nations of the earth.
London economists are alarmed at less than five hundred thousand
foreign-born in a population of six million, and discuss earnestly the
danger of too many aliens. But what is their problem in comparison
with that of New York, which counts nearly one million five hundred
thousand foreigners among its three and a half million citizens? Think
of it! Every third person in our American metropolis is an alien. By
these figures alone America’s greatness can be measured.

It is true, America has devoted herself largely to the solution of
material problems--breaking the fields, opening mines, irrigating
deserts, spanning the continent with railroads; but she is doing these
things in a new way, by educating her people, by placing at the
service of every man’s need every resource of human skill. She is
transmuting her industrial wealth into the education of her workmen,
so that unskilled people shall have no place in American life, so that
all men shall bring mind and soul to the control of matter. Her
children are not drudges and slaves. The Constitution has declared it,
and the spirit of our institutions has confirmed it. The best the land
can teach them they shall know. They shall learn that there is no
upper class in their country, and no lower, and they shall understand
how it is that God and His world are for everybody.

America might do all this, and still be selfish, still be a worshipper
of Mammon. But America is the home of charity as well as of commerce.
In the midst of roaring traffic, side by side with noisy factory and
sky-reaching warehouse, one sees the school, the library, the
hospital, the park-works of public benevolence which represent wealth
wrought into ideas that shall endure forever. Behold what America has
already done to alleviate suffering and restore the afflicted to
society--given sight to the fingers of the blind, language to the dumb
lip, and mind to the idiot clay, and tell me if indeed she worships
Mammon only. Who shall measure the sympathy, skill and intelligence
with which she ministers to all who come to her, and lessens the
ever-swelling tide of poverty, misery and degradation which every year
rolls against her gates from all the nations?

When I reflect on all these facts, I cannot but think that, Tolstoi
and other theorists to the contrary, it is a splendid thing to be an
American. In America the optimist finds abundant reason for confidence
in the present and hope for the future, and this hope, this
confidence, may well extend over all the great nations of the earth.

If we compare our own time with the past, we find in modern statistics
a solid foundation for a confident and buoyant world-optimism. Beneath
the doubt, the unrest, the materialism, which surround us still glows
and burns at the world’s best life a steadfast faith. To hear the
pessimist, one would think civilization had bivouacked in the Middle
Ages, and had not had marching orders since. He does not realize that
the progress of evolution is not an uninterrupted march.

    “Now touching goal, now backward hurl’d,
    Toils the indomitable world.”

I have recently read an address by one whose knowledge it would be
presumptuous to challenge.[2] In it I find abundant evidence of
progress.

    [2] Address by the Hon. Carroll D. Wright before the
    Unitarian Conference, September, 1903.

During the past fifty years crime has decreased. True, the records of
to-day contain a longer list of crime. But our statistics are more
complete and accurate than the statistics of times past. Besides,
there are many offences on the list which half a century ago would not
have been thought of as crimes. This shows that the public conscience
is more sensitive than it ever was.

Our definition of crime has grown stricter, our punishment of it more
lenient and intelligent. The old feeling of revenge has largely
disappeared. It is no longer an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
The criminal is treated as one who is diseased. He is confined not
merely for punishment, but because he is a menace to society. While he
is under restraint, he is treated with humane care and disciplined so
that his mind shall be cured of its disease, and he shall be restored
to society able to do his part of its work.

Another sign of awakened and enlightened public conscience is the
effort to provide the working-class with better houses. Did it occur
to any one a hundred years ago to think whether the dwellings of the
poor were sanitary, convenient or sunny? Do not forget that in the
“good old times” cholera and typhus devastated whole counties, and
that pestilence walked abroad in the capitals of Europe.

Not only have our laboring-classes better houses and better places to
work in; but employers recognize the right of the employed to seek
more than the bare wage of existence. In the darkness and turmoil of
our modern industrial strifes we discern but dimly the principles that
underlie the struggle. The recognition of the right of all men to
life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, a spirit of conciliation
such as Burke dreamed of, the willingness on the part of the strong
to make concessions to the weak, the realization that the rights of
the employer are bound up in the rights of the employed--in these the
optimist beholds the signs of our times.

Another right which the State has recognized as belonging to each man
is the right to an education. In the enlightened parts of Europe and
in America every city, every town, every village, has its school; and
it is no longer a class who have access to knowledge, for to the
children of the poorest laborer the school-door stands open. From the
civilized nations universal education is driving the dull host of
illiteracy.

Education broadens to include all men, and deepens to reach all
truths. Scholars are no longer confined to Greek, Latin and
mathematics, but they also study science; and science converts the
dreams of the poet, the theory of the mathematician and the fiction of
the economist into ships, hospitals and instruments that enable one
skilled hand to perform the work of a thousand. The student of to-day
is not asked if he has learned his grammar. Is he a mere
grammar-machine, a dry catalogue of scientific facts, or has he
acquired the qualities of manliness? His supreme lesson is to grapple
with great public questions, to keep his mind hospitable to new ideas
and new views of truth, to restore the finer ideals that are lost
sight of in the struggle for wealth and to promote justice between man
and man. He learns that there may be substitutes for human
labor--horse-power and machinery and books; but “there are no
substitutes for common sense, patience, integrity, courage.”

Who can doubt the vastness of the achievements of education when one
considers how different the condition of the blind and the deaf is
from what it was a century ago? They were then objects of
superstitious pity, and shared the lowest beggar’s lot. Everybody
looked upon their case as hopeless, and this view plunged them deeper
in despair. The blind themselves laughed in the face of Haüy when he
offered to teach them to read. How pitiable is the cramped sense of
imprisonment in circumstances which teaches men to expect no good and
to treat any attempt to relieve them as the vagary of a disordered
mind! But now, behold the transformation; see how institutions and
industrial establishments for the blind have sprung up as if by magic;
see how many of the deaf have learned not only to read and write, but
to speak; and remember that the faith and patience of Dr. Howe have
borne fruit in the efforts that are being made everywhere to educate
the deaf-blind and equip them for the struggle. Do you wonder that I
am full of hope and lifted up?

The highest result of education is tolerance. Long ago men fought and
died for their faith; but it took ages to teach them the other kind of
courage,--the courage to recognize the faiths of their brethren and
their rights of conscience. Tolerance is the first principle of
community; it is the spirit which conserves the best that all men
think. No loss by flood and lightning, no destruction of cities and
temples by the hostile forces of nature, has deprived man of so many
noble lives and impulses as those which his intolerance has destroyed.

With wonder and sorrow I go back in thought to the ages of
intolerance and bigotry. I see Jesus received with scorn and nailed
on the cross. I see his followers hounded and tortured and burned. I
am present where the finer spirits that revolt from the superstition
of the Middle Ages are accused of impiety and stricken down. I behold
the children of Israel reviled and persecuted unto death by those who
pretend Christianity with the tongue; I see them driven from land to
land, hunted from refuge to refuge, summoned to the felon’s place,
exposed to the whip, mocked as they utter amid the pain of martyrdom a
confession of the faith which they have kept with such splendid
constancy. The same bigotry that oppresses the Jews falls tiger-like
upon Christian nonconformists of purest lives and wipes out the
Albigenses and the peaceful Vaudois, “whose bones lie on the mountains
cold.” I see the clouds part slowly, and I hear a cry of protest
against the bigot. The restraining hand of tolerance is laid upon the
inquisitor, and the humanist utters a message of peace to the
persecuted. Instead of the cry, “Burn the heretic!” men study the
human soul with sympathy, and there enters into their hearts a new
reverence for that which is unseen.

The idea of brotherhood redawns upon the world with a broader
significance than the narrow association of members in a sect or
creed; and thinkers of great soul like Lessing challenge the world to
say which is more godlike, the hatred and tooth-and-nail grapple of
conflicting religions, or sweet accord and mutual helpfulness. Ancient
prejudice of man against his brother-man wavers and retreats before
the radiance of a more generous sentiment, which will not sacrifice
men to forms, or rob them of the comfort and strength they find in
their own beliefs. The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the
next. Mere tolerance has given place to a sentiment of brotherhood
between sincere men of all denominations. The optimist rejoices in the
affectionate sympathy between Catholic heart and Protestant heart
which finds a gratifying expression in the universal respect and warm
admiration for Leo XIII on the part of good men the world over. The
centenary celebrations of the births of Emerson and Channing are
beautiful examples of the tribute which men of all creeds pay to the
memory of a pure soul.

Thus in my outlook upon our times I find that I am glad to be a
citizen of the world, and as I regard my country, I find that to be an
American is to be an optimist. I know the unhappy and unrighteous
story of what has been done in the Philippines beneath our flag; but I
believe that in the accidents of statecraft the best intelligence of
the people sometimes fails to express itself. I read in the history of
Julius Cæsar that during the civil wars there were millions of
peaceful herdsmen and laborers who worked as long as they could, and
fled before the advance of the armies that were led by the few, then
waited until the danger was past, and returned to repair damages with
patient hands. So the people are patient and honest, while their
rulers stumble. I rejoice to see in the world and in this country a
new and better patriotism than that which seeks the life of an enemy.
It is a patriotism higher than that of the battle-field. It moves
thousands to lay down their lives in social service, and every life so
laid down brings us a step nearer the time when corn-fields shall no
more be fields of battle. So when I heard of the cruel fighting in the
Philippines, I did not despair, because I knew that the hearts of our
people were not in that fight, and that sometime the hand of the
destroyer must be stayed.



Part iii. The Practice of Optimism

[Illustration]



Part iii

The Practice of Optimism


The test of all beliefs is their practical effect in life. If it be
true that optimism compels the world forward, and pessimism retards
it, then it is dangerous to propagate a pessimistic philosophy. One
who believes that the pain in the world outweighs the joy, and
expresses that unhappy conviction, only adds to the pain. Schopenhauer
is an enemy to the race. Even if he earnestly believed that this is
the most wretched of possible worlds, he should not promulgate a
doctrine which robs men of the incentive to fight with circumstance.
If Life gave him ashes for bread, it was his fault. Life is a fair
field, and the right will prosper if we stand by our guns.

Let pessimism once take hold of the mind, and life is all topsy-turvy,
all vanity and vexation of spirit. There is no cure for individual or
social disorder, except in forgetfulness and annihilation. “Let us
eat, drink and be merry,” says the pessimist, “for to-morrow we die.”
If I regarded my life from the point of view of the pessimist, I
should be undone. I should seek in vain for the light that does not
visit my eyes and the music that does not ring in my ears. I should
beg night and day and never be satisfied. I should sit apart in awful
solitude, a prey to fear and despair. But since I consider it a duty
to myself and to others to be happy, I escape a misery worse than any
physical deprivation.

Who shall dare let his incapacity for hope or goodness cast a shadow
upon the courage of those who bear their burdens as if they were
privileges? The optimist cannot fall back, cannot falter; for he knows
his neighbor will be hindered by his failure to keep in line. He will
therefore hold his place fearlessly and remember the duty of silence.
Sufficient unto each heart is its own sorrow. He will take the iron
claws of circumstance in his hand and use them as tools to break away
the obstacles that block his path. He will work as if upon him alone
depended the establishment of heaven on earth.

We have seen that the world’s philosophers--the Sayers of the
Word--were optimists; so also are the men of action and
achievement--the Doers of the Word. Dr. Howe found his way to Laura
Bridgman’s soul because he began with the belief that he could reach
it. English jurists had said that the deaf-blind were idiots in the
eyes of the law. Behold what the optimist does. He controverts a hard
legal axiom; he looks behind the dull impassive clay and sees a human
soul in bondage, and quietly, resolutely sets about its deliverance.
His efforts are victorious. He creates intelligence out of idiocy and
proves to the law that the deaf-blind man is a responsible being.

When Haüy offered to teach the blind to read, he was met by pessimism
that laughed at his folly. Had he not believed that the soul of man is
mightier than the ignorance that fetters it, had he not been an
optimist, he would not have turned the fingers of the blind into new
instruments. No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or
sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human
spirit. St. Bernard was so deeply an optimist that he believed two
hundred and fifty enlightened men could illuminate the darkness which
overwhelmed the period of the Crusades; and the light of his faith
broke like a new day upon western Europe. John Bosco, the benefactor
of the poor and the friendless of Italian cities, was another
optimist, another prophet who, perceiving a Divine Idea while it was
yet afar, proclaimed it to his countrymen. Although they laughed at
his vision and called him a madman, yet he worked on patiently, and
with the labor of his hands he maintained a home for little street
waifs. In the fervor of enthusiasm he predicted the wonderful movement
which should result from his work. Even in the days before he had
money or patronage, he drew glowing pictures of the splendid system of
schools and hospitals which should spread from one end of Italy to
the other, and he lived to see the organization of the San Salvador
Society, which was the embodiment of his prophetic optimism. When Dr.
Seguin declared his opinion that the feeble-minded could be taught,
again people laughed, and in their complacent wisdom said he was no
better than an idiot himself. But the noble optimist persevered, and
by and by the reluctant pessimists saw that he whom they ridiculed had
become one of the world’s philanthropists. Thus the optimist believes,
attempts, achieves. He stands always in the sunlight. Some day the
wonderful, the inexpressible, arrives and shines upon him, and he is
there to welcome it. His soul meets his own and beats a glad march to
every new discovery, every fresh victory over difficulties, every
addition to human knowledge and happiness.

We have found that our great philosophers and our great men of action
are optimists. So, too, our most potent men of letters have been
optimists in their books and in their lives. No pessimist ever won an
audience commensurately wide with his genius, and many optimistic
writers have been read and admired out of all measure to their
talents, simply because they wrote of the sunlit side of life.
Dickens, Lamb, Goldsmith, Irving, all the well-beloved and gentle
humorists, were optimists. Swift, the pessimist, has never had as many
readers as his towering genius should command, and indeed, when he
comes down into our century and meets Thackeray, that generous
optimist can hardly do him justice. In spite of the latter-day
notoriety of the “Rubáiyát” of Omar Khayyám, we may set it down as a
rule that he who would be heard must be a believer, must have a
fundamental optimism in his philosophy. He may bluster and disagree
and lament as Carlyle and Ruskin do sometimes; but a basic confidence
in the good destiny of life and of the world must underlie his work.

Shakespeare is the prince of optimists. His tragedies are a revelation
of moral order. In “Lear” and “Hamlet” there is a looking forward to
something better, some one is left at the end of the play to right
wrong, restore society and build the state anew. The later plays, “The
Tempest” and “Cymbeline,” show a beautiful, placid optimism which
delights in reconciliations and reunions and which plans for the
triumph of external as well as internal good.

If Browning were less difficult to read, he would surely be the
dominant poet in this century. I feel the ecstasy with which he
exclaims, “Oh, good gigantic smile o’ the brown old earth this autumn
morning!” And how he sets my brain going when he says, because there
is imperfection, there must be perfection; completeness must come of
incompleteness; failure is an evidence of triumph for the fulness of
the days. Yes, discord is, that harmony may be; pain destroys, that
health may renew; perhaps I am deaf and blind that others likewise
afflicted may see and hear with a more perfect sense! From Browning I
learn that there is no lost good, and that makes it easier for me to
go at life, right or wrong, do the best I know, and fear not. My heart
responds proudly to his exhortation to pay gladly life’s debt of pain,
darkness and cold. Lift up your burden, it is God’s gift, bear it
nobly.

The man of letters whose voice is to prevail must be an optimist, and
his voice often learns its message from his life. Stevenson’s life has
become a tradition only ten years after his death; he has taken his
place among the heroes, the bravest man of letters since Johnson and
Lamb. I remember an hour when I was discouraged and ready to falter.
For days I had been pegging away at a task which refused to get itself
accomplished. In the midst of my perplexity I read an essay of
Stevenson which made me feel as if I had been “outing” in the
sunshine, instead of losing heart over a difficult task. I tried again
with new courage and succeeded almost before I knew it. I have failed
many times since; but I have never felt so disheartened as I did
before that sturdy preacher gave me my lesson in the “fashion of the
smiling face.”

Read Schopenhauer and Omar, and you will grow to find the world as
hollow as they find it. Read Green’s history of England, and the world
is peopled with heroes. I never knew why Green’s history thrilled me
with the vigor of romance until I read his biography. Then I learned
how his quick imagination transfigured the hard, bare facts of life
into new and living dreams. When he and his wife were too poor to have
a fire, he would sit before the unlit hearth and pretend that it was
ablaze. “Drill your thoughts,” he said; “shut out the gloomy and call
in the bright. There is more wisdom in shutting one’s eyes than your
copybook philosophers will allow.”

Every optimist moves along with progress and hastens it, while every
pessimist would keep the world at a standstill. The consequence of
pessimism in the life of a nation is the same as in the life of the
individual. Pessimism kills the instinct that urges men to struggle
against poverty, ignorance and crime, and dries up all the fountains
of joy in the world. In imagination I leave the country which lifts up
the manhood of the poor and I visit India, the underworld of
fatalism--where three hundred million human beings, scarcely men,
submerged in ignorance and misery, precipitate themselves still deeper
into the pit. Why are they thus? Because they have for thousands of
years been the victims of their philosophy, which teaches them that
men are as grass, and the grass fadeth, and there is no more greenness
upon the earth. They sit in the shadow and let the circumstances they
should master grip them, until they cease to be Men, and are made to
dance and salaam like puppets in a play. After a little hour death
comes and hurries them off to the grave, and other puppets with other
“pasteboard passions and desires” take their place, and the show goes
on for centuries.

Go to India and see what sort of civilization is developed when a
nation lacks faith in progress and bows to the gods of darkness. Under
the influence of Brahminism genius and ambition have been suppressed.
There is no one to befriend the poor or to protect the fatherless and
the widow. The sick lie untended. The blind know not how to see, nor
the deaf to hear, and they are left by the roadside to die. In India
it is a sin to teach the blind and the deaf because their affliction
is regarded as a punishment for offences in a previous state of
existence. If I had been born in the midst of these fatalistic
doctrines, I should still be in darkness, my life a desert-land where
no caravan of thought might pass between my spirit and the world
beyond.

The Hindoos believe in endurance, but not in resistance; therefore
they have been subdued by strangers. Their history is a repetition of
that of Babylon. A nation from afar came with speed swiftly, and none
stumbled, or slept, or slumbered, but they brought desolation upon the
land, and took the stay and the staff from the people, the whole stay
of bread, and the whole stay of water, the mighty man, and the man of
war, the judge, and the prophet, and the prudent, and the ancient, and
none delivered them. Woe, indeed, is the heritage of those who walk
sad-thoughted and downcast through this radiant, soul-delighting
earth, blind to its beauty and deaf to its music, and of those who
call evil good, and good evil, and put darkness for light, and light
for darkness.

What care the weather-bronzed sons of the West, feeding the world
from the plains of Dakota, for the Omars and the Brahmins? They would
say to the Hindoos, “Blot out your philosophy, dead for a thousand
years, look with fresh eyes at Reality and Life, put away your
Brahmins and your crooked gods, and seek diligently for Vishnu the
Preserver.”

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done
without hope. When our forefathers laid the foundation of the American
commonwealths, what nerved them to their task but a vision of a free
community? Against the cold, inhospitable sky, across the wilderness
white with snow, where lurked the hidden savage, gleamed the bow of
promise, toward which they set their faces with the faith that levels
mountains, fills up valleys, bridges rivers and carries civilization
to the uttermost parts of the earth. Although the pioneers could not
build according to the Hebraic ideal they saw, yet they gave the
pattern of all that is most enduring in our country to-day. They
brought to the wilderness the thinking mind, the printed book, the
deep-rooted desire for self-government and the English common law that
judges alike the king and the subject, the law on which rests the
whole structure of our society.

It is significant that the foundation of that law is optimistic. In
Latin countries the court proceeds with a pessimistic bias. The
prisoner is held guilty until he is proved innocent. In England and
the United States there is an optimistic presumption that the accused
is innocent until it is no longer possible to deny his guilt. Under
our system, it is said, many criminals are acquitted; but it is surely
better so than that many innocent persons should suffer. The
pessimist cries, “There is no enduring good in man! The tendency of
all things is through perpetual loss to chaos in the end. If there was
ever an idea of good in things evil, it was impotent, and the world
rushes on to ruin.” But behold, the law of the two most sober-minded,
practical and law-abiding nations on earth assumes the good in man and
demands a proof of the bad.

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. The prophets of the
world have been of good heart, or their standards would have stood
naked in the field without a defender. Tolstoi’s strictures lose power
because they are pessimistic. If he had seen clearly the faults of
America, and still believed in her capacity to overcome them, our
people might have felt the stimulation of his censure. But the world
turns its back on a hopeless prophet and listens to Emerson who takes
into account the best qualities of the nation and attacks only the
vices which no one can defend or deny. It listens to the strong man,
Lincoln, who in times of doubt, trouble and need does not falter. He
sees success afar, and by strenuous hope, by hoping against hope,
inspires a nation. Through the night of despair he says, “All is
well,” and thousands rest in his confidence. When such a man censures,
and points to a fault, the nation obeys, and his words sink into the
ears of men; but to the lamentations of the habitual Jeremiah the ear
grows dull.

Our newspapers should remember this. The press is the pulpit of the
modern world, and on the preachers who fill it much depends. If the
protest of the press against unrighteous measures is to avail, then
for ninety-nine days the word of the preacher should be buoyant and of
good cheer, so that on the hundredth day the voice of censure may be
a hundred times strong. This was Lincoln’s way. He knew the people; he
believed in them and rested his faith on the justice and wisdom of the
great majority. When in his rough and ready way he said, “You can’t
fool all the people all the time,” he expressed a great principle, the
doctrine of faith in human nature.

The prophet is not without honor, save he be a pessimist. The ecstatic
prophecies of Isaiah did far more to restore the exiles of Israel to
their homes than the lamentations of Jeremiah did to deliver them from
the hands of evil-doers.

Even on Christmas Day do men remember that Christ came as a prophet of
good? His joyous optimism is like water to feverish lips, and has for
its highest expression the eight beatitudes. It is because Christ is
an optimist that for ages he has dominated the Western world. For
nineteen centuries Christendom has gazed into his shining face and
felt that all things work together for good. St. Paul, too, taught the
faith which looks beyond the hardest things into the infinite horizon
of heaven, where all limitations are lost in the light of perfect
understanding. If you are born blind, search the treasures of
darkness. They are more precious than the gold of Ophir. They are love
and goodness and truth and hope, and their price is above rubies and
sapphires.

Jesus utters and Paul proclaims a message of peace and a message of
reason, a belief in the Idea, not in things, in love, not in conquest.
The optimist is he who sees that men’s actions are directed not by
squadrons and armies, but by moral power, that the conquests of
Alexander and Napoleon are less abiding than Newton’s and Galileo’s
and St. Augustine’s silent mastery of the world. Ideas are mightier
than fire and sword. Noiselessly they propagate themselves from land
to land, and mankind goes out and reaps the rich harvest and thanks
God; but the achievements of the warrior are like his canvas city,
“to-day a camp, to-morrow all struck and vanished, a few pit-holes and
heaps of straw.” This was the gospel of Jesus two thousand years ago.
Christmas Day is the festival of optimism.

Although there are still great evils which have not been subdued, and
the optimist is not blind to them, yet he is full of hope. Despondency
has no place in his creed, for he believes in the imperishable
righteousness of God and the dignity of man. History records man’s
triumphant ascent. Each halt in his progress has been but a pause
before a mighty leap forward. The time is not out of joint. If indeed
some of the temples we worshipped in have fallen, we have built new
ones on the sacred sites loftier and holier than those which have
crumbled. If we have lost some of the heroic physical qualities of our
ancestors, we have replaced them with a spiritual nobleness that turns
aside wrath and binds up the wounds of the vanquished. All the past
attainments of man are ours; and more, his day-dreams have become our
clear realities. Therein lies our hope and sure faith.

As I stand in the sunshine of a sincere and earnest optimism, my
imagination “paints yet more glorious triumphs on the cloud-curtain of
the future.” Out of the fierce struggle and turmoil of contending
systems and powers I see a brighter spiritual era slowly emerge--an
era in which there shall be no England, no France, no Germany, no
America, no this people or that, but one family, the human race; one
law, peace; one need, harmony; one means, labor; one taskmaster, God.

If I should try to say anew the creed of the optimist, I should say
something like this: “I believe in God, I believe in man, I believe in
the power of the spirit. I believe it is a sacred duty to encourage
ourselves and others; to hold the tongue from any unhappy word against
God’s world, because no man has any right to complain of a universe
which God made good, and which thousands of men have striven to keep
good. I believe we should so act that we may draw nearer and more near
the age when no man shall live at his ease while another suffers.”
These are the articles of my faith, and there is yet another on which
all depends--to bear this faith above every tempest which overfloods
it, and to make it a principle in disaster and through affliction.
Optimism is the harmony between man’s spirit and the spirit of God
pronouncing His works good.


The End

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