The following was published in The International, Vol. VI, No. V for October 1912.
A Counsel of Imperfection
by Benjamin DeCasseres
GULLIBUS:—But if your theories prevailed what would become of the race?
SATIRICUS:—The race ? My dear Gullibus, there is no such thing as the race; like posterity, it is a verbal superstition. The word was invented to keep social philosophers from saying anything dangerous. “To live for posterity” is the phrase of faddists. The attempt to live up to that phrase results in mental, moral and physical decay. It is part of the doctrine of Christian altruism—the part that is the most beautiful and decadent in tendency ; for you know, dear Gullibus, that all altruism is degeneracy. I can conceive of nothing more immoral than to sacrifice a present benefit in order to avoid a future evil. Grasp what you can now. Why should we live like a naked Hypothesis, sacrificing ‘the facts of this day for fear of the things that may not happen to-morrow ? Fine phrases have eviscerated the instinct to individuality. Social evolution is the evolution of phrases. The idea that we should so order our lives as to benefit generations not yet born is an idea that came into the world with the advent of man ; and man is only an abnormal development of the monkey, the most perfect, to my way of thinking, of all the vertebrates. Being an abnormality, man’s ideas are all abnormal, freakish. Do you suppose for a moment that the histories of those wonderful social states that the ants, bees, monkeys and other forms of superior intelligence have organized can show such worship of Cant as the history of man?
Let us look at some of the consequences were men to live solely with an eye to the good of posterity. What would become of sin, the one thing that gives form, color and symmetry to life? We dream of transmitting our sins and our defects as well as our virtues, and a father would rather see a son resemble him on his seamy side alone than not to have the son resemble him at all. The dream is to have “a chip of the old block.” There is no greater secret humiliation for a parent than to see a child who is “better” than himself. Superiority always draws the arrows of hate from the hidden slings where they are kept.
GULLIBUS :—You mean to say, Satiricus, that we are all in love with sin?
SATIRICUS :—Yes. Our dream of Heaven, of Perfection, is but the soul brooding over its abrogated darling sins. Perfection is sin deferred. The dream of a perfect social State springs from the cupidity of the heart. As for me, the most beautiful thing I can think of is a life wherein I shall live out my thwarted instincts. That is a marvellously beautiful thought which comes to me at times—that in some other sphere, social or celestial, I will be able to do all those things which the policeman would not allow me to do here. For the way of the transgressor who meets with no resistance is paved with gold.
GULLIBUS :—And conscience, Satiricus, what of that?
SATIRICUS :—It is not our sins that have begotten conscience. On the contrary, it is the inability to realize our sinful (miserable word !) desires that gives us that uncomfortable feeling in the head which is known as conscience. Successful murderers and thieves and swindlers have no conscience until they are caught. Success never had a conscience. It is born of fear and baffled instinct. Conscience is the homage that evil intention pays to the policeman.
Altruistic ideals are indeed valuable if we do not try to live up to them. Nothing so coarsens a thing as to use it. The sublime is only the sublime as long as we do not humanize it. Self-sacrifice is a sublime feeling; it attracts because of its unreality. To live for others ! Superb uplift in these words ! What exaltation in the idea! And, my dear Gullibus, it only exalts because it is an idea. We love goodness in an inverse ratio to our means of realizing it. Pegasus appeals to the imagination because he never existed. Drag him from his habitation in the clouds and we should yoke him to drays and furniture vans. It is thus with our ideals. If by any accident a great ideal becomes practicable it is soon ground up in the mills of the commonplace—and so loses all its beauty.
GULLIBUS :—What a paradoxist you are ! You destroy the value both of conscience and the ideal. Has the ideal, for instance, no value at all?
SATIRICUS :—Of course—did I not just speak of its value ? The ideal of self-sacrifice has an aesthetic value, like a sunset or a charming landscape. It has the beauty of perspective, the vague charm of aloofness. It has the value of an incentive. To degrade a dream into a concrete rule of conduct is as vulgar a thing as to litter the heavens with patent medicine advertisements. Have you noticed how convictions lose their force when enacted into law ? All our legislative bodies are engaged in repealing what the previous body ordained. It is a tragedy of the Ideal—the debacle of Imagination.
The man who goes to the stake for his convictions is an ass. But the martyr as a motive for a work of art or a novel is invaluable. For the beauty of an act of martyrdom lies in the fact that it will appear beautiful to somebody else. It has an aesthetic value only and is absolutely destitute of moral significance. Bruno, Savonarola and Socrates were merely obstinate fanatics. It is we who have created them. A kind of ex-post facto idealism. Now as to this craze of living for posterity and the “good of the race,” the motive is not moral, but aesthetic ; and that it has a value (as a human motive) no one can doubt who loves the marvellous literature of the New Testament, the jewelled but inutile phrasings of Ruskin and the simple patriarchal style of the late Tolstoi. What literature the unphilosophical philosophy of self-acrifice has given us!
GULLIBUS :—And Truth—what becomes of that in this amazing view ?
SATIRICUS :—Truth ! There is only one truth !—The universality of error. You remember what I said about Pegasus? Well, if Men ever discovered the Truth they would be bored to death. Without error life would not be worth the living. Indeed, life is hardly worth the living to-day because it is so much better than it used to be. People actually commit suicide now because they are happy—that is, they are bored with life, and what is boredom but the highest phase of happiness ? We are confronted by the dreadful possibility that every ideal may soon be realized. The Socialists are about to decree the end of poverty and want and will substitute a nasty ennui. The pride of rank is to make way for rank pride. The Empire of the Wise will soon be in the dust and every wise man will be compelled to live out his system as a penance for having dared to dream it. Gullibus, the imagination of man is confronted by the greatest crisis in its history. We are going to lose our gods ; the corner orator is decreeing the death of the Intangible. We shall fall from Parnassus into the Bon Marche.
And then in these days we are all understood. We no longer know the sweet secret of incommunicable sorrows. We are no longer mysterious one to another. We read each other like circus billboards. Life has lost its savor of mutual ignorance. The Brain is discovering all things, even its own limitations. Everything is classifiable. We are verging toward truth, goodness and cosmic lassitude. I foresee a time when there will no longer be room for those exquisite little hatreds and subtle jealousies from which we at present derive much pleasure.
GULLIBUS :—You don’t seriously hold that our hatreds are a source of pleasure, do you ?
SATRICUS :—Nothing is more clearly true. All hatred adds to self-esteem, and anything that adds to self-esteem must be pleasurable. Envy I hold to be the first and highest of virtues. To be envious of another reveals to us our own limitations. It makes us desire the things we lack ; and this gives birth to the instinct of pursuit. I often conceive envy as an exquisite perfume. It gives us our ideals. It is the fairest flower that blossoms on the Tree of Good and Evil. I, for one, dear Gullibus, would not consent to live another minute did the Green Goddess desert me. Envy is certainly the father of genius and the mother at least of self-culture. The total absence of this almost universal spur argues a low origin—bovine or porcine. We find little envy among peasants because they have no knowledge of values and no aspirations ; they would rather sleep on a dunghill than in the seigneur’s halls. Nothing so titillates my daily life as a desire for my neighbor’s wife or his rugs or his gold. Those who lack this divine and urgent fire of envy will be found prosy and virtuous or stupidly wise ! To dream of undoing your neighbor raises the tide of life—and Herbert Spencer, you know, defines pleasure as a rise in the tide of life. This is the age of intellectual Borgias, but it will pass, is passing now with the coming apotheosis of stupidity, the Brotherhood of Man. The Brotherhood of Man ! What a gigantic egotism ! We so love ourselves that, not being content with that, we are constantly seeking to be some one else. The precious fluids of selfhood seek discharge in other modes of life than our own. The passion for the consummation of the scheme of the Brotherhood of Man is generated in the monstrous desire of o’erbrimming egotists to expand the bladder of self to the dimensions of the race. The soul of man blasphemously seeks to take on the characteristics of Omnipotence ; this it calls self-sacrifice. Men desire to be MAN ; this they name the Brotherhood of Man.
It is envy that creates want ; it is the fulcrum on which Power tries its instruments. I would rather envy than have.
GULLIBUS :—And what becomes of justice?
SATIRICUS :—Justice is a catchword. It is as fugitive as the idea of God. It has never been defined. The only definition of justice that sounds rational to me is the tiger’s definition : What you want go and take. It is just that the strong should prey and that the weak should pray. All that I have has been stolen, even my present reasoning. If any one interferes with my methods, that is unjust, for injustice may be defined as settling an arbitrary limit to Power. Our present social condition is the most unjust imaginable because of the unceasing depredations of the weak on the strong. All organized government is used by the weak to harry and oppress primitive strength. Hence the present reign of mediocrity. The strongest go to the wall or jail and the unfittest survive and write our laws, our literature and our poems. You see, Gullibus, it is the old posterity-worship idea again. We are preserving the race at the expense of the individual. There is no justice in a system that will tie a Gulliver to the ground and allow myriad black ants from the government ant-villages to void their offal on him. Only war is justice.
GULLIBUS :—You are hardly convincing. From your remarks I gather that you have a very poor opinion of civilization. Come, have some common sense.
SATIRICUS :—Common sense is vulgar sense. Let us put common sense aside and talk intelligently. Civilization is a device for increasing human wants. It, too, is merely barbarism tattooed. But civilization is good in this : that it never satisfied a human craving. It promotes all the sacrosanct vices. There is nothing more frightful than a sense of satisfaction with things. Content is ever the doctrine of the aged and well-to-do. No, my dear Gullibus, let us not underestimate the blessings of civilization. Nowhere else can you find such exquisite pains and sufferings. Nothing so promotes the picturesquely criminal as our great and compact cities. The vileness of modern life is the one thing that redeems it. It made Balzac, Zola and Gissing possible. The slums are worth while when they manure such genius. Organized want—that is London ; unique thought, is it not ? Artists and psychologists and thinkers are interested in the phenomenon. It is the clay of the artistic spirit. Thus does civilization tend to perpetuate the arts and sciences. Gloria in Excelsis ! Have a cigarette?