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How To Make the Best of Life

I have been asked to speak on the question how to make the best of
life, but may as well confess at once that I know nothing about it.
I cannot think that I have made the best of my own life, nor is it
likely that I shall make much better of what may or may not remain
to me. I do not even know how to make the best of the twenty
minutes that your committee has placed at my disposal, and as for
life as a whole, who ever yet made the best of such a colossal
opportunity by conscious effort and deliberation? In little things
no doubt deliberate and conscious effort will help us, but we are
speaking of large issues, and such kingdoms of heaven as the making
the best of these come not by observation.

The question, therefore, on which I have undertaken to address you
is, as you must all know, fatuous, if it be faced seriously. Life
is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument
as one goes on. One cannot make the best of such impossibilities,
and the question is doubly fatuous until we are told which of our
two lives--the conscious or the unconscious--is held by the asker to
be the truer life. Which does the question contemplate--the life we
know, or the life which others may know, but which we know not?

Death gives a life to some men and women compared with which their
so-called existence here is as nothing. Which is the truer life of
Shakespeare, Handel, that divine woman who wrote the "Odyssey," and
of Jane Austen--the life which palpitated with sensible warm motion
within their own bodies, or that in virtue of which they are still
palpitating in ours? In whose consciousness does their truest life
consist--their own, or ours? Can Shakespeare be said to have begun
his true life till a hundred years or so after he was dead and
buried? His physical life was but as an embryonic stage, a coming
up out of darkness, a twilight and dawn before the sunrise of that
life of the world to come which he was to enjoy hereafter. We all
live for a while after we are gone hence, but we are for the most
part stillborn, or at any rate die in infancy, as regards that life
which every age and country has recognised as higher and truer than
the one of which we are now sentient. As the life of the race is
larger, longer, and in all respects more to be considered than that
of the individual, so is the life we live in others larger and more
important than the one we live in ourselves. This appears nowhere
perhaps more plainly than in the case of great teachers, who often
in the lives of their pupils produce an effect that reaches far
beyond anything produced while their single lives were yet
unsupplemented by those other lives into which they infused their

Death to such people is the ending of a short life, but it does not
touch the life they are already living in those whom they have
taught; and happily, as none can know when he shall die, so none can
make sure that he too shall not live long beyond the grave; for the
life after death is like money before it--no one can be sure that it
may not fall to him or her even at the eleventh hour. Money and
immortality come in such odd unaccountable ways that no one is cut
off from hope. We may not have made either of them for ourselves,
but yet another may give them to us in virtue of his or her love,
which shall illumine us for ever, and establish us in some heavenly
mansion whereof we neither dreamed nor shall ever dream. Look at
the Doge Loredano Loredani, the old man's smile upon whose face has
been reproduced so faithfully in so many lands that it can never
henceforth be forgotten--would he have had one hundredth part of the
life he now lives had he not been linked awhile with one of those
heaven-sent men who know che cosa e amor? Look at Rembrandt's old
woman in our National Gallery; had she died before she was eighty-
three years old she would not have been living now. Then, when she
was eighty-three, immortality perched upon her as a bird on a
withered bough.

I seem to hear some one say that this is a mockery, a piece of
special pleading, a giving of stones to those that ask for bread.
Life is not life unless we can feel it, and a life limited to a
knowledge of such fraction of our work as may happen to survive us
is no true life in other people; salve it as we may, death is not
life any more than black is white.

The objection is not so true as it sounds. I do not deny that we
had rather not die, nor do I pretend that much even in the case of
the most favoured few can survive them beyond the grave. It is only
because this is so that our own life is possible; others have made
room for us, and we should make room for others in our turn without
undue repining. What I maintain is that a not inconsiderable number
of people do actually attain to a life beyond the grave which we can
all feel forcibly enough, whether they can do so or not--that this
life tends with increasing civilisation to become more and more
potent, and that it is better worth considering, in spite of its
being unfelt by ourselves, than any which we have felt or can ever
feel in our own persons.

Take an extreme case. A group of people are photographed by
Edison's new process--say Titiens, Trebelli, and Jenny Lind, with
any two of the finest men singers the age has known--let them be
photographed incessantly for half an hour while they perform a scene
in "Lohengrin"; let all be done stereoscopically. Let them be
phonographed at the same time so that their minutest shades of
intonation are preserved, let the slides be coloured by a competent
artist, and then let the scene be called suddenly into sight and
sound, say a hundred years hence. Are those people dead or alive?
Dead to themselves they are, but while they live so powerfully and
so livingly in us, which is the greater paradox--to say that they
are alive or that they are dead? To myself it seems that their life
in others would be more truly life than their death to themselves is
death. Granted that they do not present all the phenomena of life--
who ever does so even when he is held to be alive? We are held to
be alive because we present a sufficient number of living phenomena
to let the others go without saying; those who see us take the part
for the whole here as in everything else, and surely, in the case
supposed above, the phenomena of life predominate so powerfully over
those of death, that the people themselves must be held to be more
alive than dead. Our living personality is, as the word implies,
only our mask, and those who still own such a mask as I have
supposed have a living personality. Granted again that the case
just put is an extreme one; still many a man and many a woman has so
stamped him or herself on his work that, though we would gladly have
the aid of such accessories as we doubtless presently shall have to
the livingness of our great dead, we can see them very sufficiently
through the master pieces they have left us.

As for their own unconsciousness I do not deny it. The life of the
embryo was unconscious before birth, and so is the life--I am
speaking only of the life revealed to us by natural religion--after
death. But as the embryonic and infant life of which we were
unconscious was the most potent factor in our after life of
consciousness, so the effect which we may unconsciously produce in
others after death, and it may be even before it on those who have
never seen us, is in all sober seriousness our truer and more
abiding life, and the one which those who would make the best of
their sojourn here will take most into their consideration.

Unconsciousness is no bar to livingness. Our conscious actions are
a drop in the sea as compared with our unconscious ones. Could we
know all the life that is in us by way of circulation, nutrition,
breathing, waste and repair, we should learn what an infinitesimally
small part consciousness plays in our present existence; yet our
unconscious life is as truly life as our conscious life, and though
it is unconscious to itself it emerges into an indirect and
vicarious consciousness in our other and conscious self, which
exists but in virtue of our unconscious self. So we have also a
vicarious consciousness in others. The unconscious life of those
that have gone before us has in great part moulded us into such men
and women as we are, and our own unconscious lives will in like
manner have a vicarious consciousness in others, though we be dead
enough to it in ourselves.

If it is again urged that it matters not to us how much we may be
alive in others, if we are to know nothing about it, I reply that
the common instinct of all who are worth considering gives the lie
to such cynicism. I see here present some who have achieved, and
others who no doubt will achieve, success in literature. Will one
of them hesitate to admit that it is a lively pleasure to her to
feel that on the other side of the world some one may be smiling
happily over her work, and that she is thus living in that person
though she knows nothing about it? Here it seems to me that true
faith comes in. Faith does not consist, as the Sunday School pupil
said, "in the power of believing that which we know to be untrue."
It consists in holding fast that which the healthiest and most
kindly instincts of the best and most sensible men and women are
intuitively possessed of, without caring to require much evidence
further than the fact that such people are so convinced; and for my
own part I find the best men and women I know unanimous in feeling
that life in others, even though we know nothing about it, is
nevertheless a thing to be desired and gratefully accepted if we can
get it either before death or after. I observe also that a large
number of men and women do actually attain to such life, and in some
cases continue so to live, if not for ever, yet to what is
practically much the same thing. Our life then in this world is, to
natural religion as much as to revealed, a period of probation. The
use we make of it is to settle how far we are to enter into another,
and whether that other is to be a heaven of just affection or a hell
of righteous condemnation.

Who, then, are the most likely so to run that they may obtain this
veritable prize of our high calling? Setting aside such lucky
numbers drawn as it were in the lottery of immortality, which I have
referred to casually above, and setting aside also the chances and
changes from which even immortality is not exempt, who on the whole
are most likely to live anew in the affectionate thoughts of those
who never so much as saw them in the flesh, and know not even their
names? There is a nisus, a straining in the dull dumb economy of
things, in virtue of which some, whether they will it and know it or
no, are more likely to live after death than others, and who are
these? Those who aimed at it as by some great thing that they would
do to make them famous? Those who have lived most in themselves and
for themselves, or those who have been most ensouled consciously,
but perhaps better unconsciously, directly but more often
indirectly, by the most living souls past and present that have
flitted near them? Can we think of a man or woman who grips us
firmly, at the thought of whom we kindle when we are alone in our
honest daw's plumes, with none to admire or shrug his shoulders, can
we think of one such, the secret of whose power does not lie in the
charm of his or her personality--that is to say, in the wideness of
his or her sympathy with, and therefore life in and communion with
other people? In the wreckage that comes ashore from the sea of
time there is much tinsel stuff that we must preserve and study if
we would know our own times and people; granted that many a dead
charlatan lives long and enters largely and necessarily into our own
lives; we use them and throw them away when we have done with them.
I do not speak of these, I do not speak of the Virgils and Alexander
Popes, and who can say how many more whose names I dare not mention
for fear of offending. They are as stuffed birds or beasts in a
Museum, serviceable no doubt from a scientific standpoint, but with
no vivid or vivifying hold upon us. They seem to be alive, but are
not. I am speaking of those who do actually live in us, and move us
to higher achievements though they be long dead, whose life thrusts
out our own and overrides it. I speak of those who draw us ever
more towards them from youth to age, and to think of whom is to feel
at once that we are in the hands of those we love, and whom we would
most wish to resemble. What is the secret of the hold that these
people have upon us? Is it not that while, conventionally speaking,
alive, they most merged their lives in, and were in fullest
communion with those among whom they lived? They found their lives
in losing them. We never love the memory of any one unless we feel
that he or she was himself or herself a lover.

I have seen it urged, again, in querulous accents, that the so-
called immortality even of the most immortal is not for ever. I see
a passage to this effect in a book that is making a stir as I write.
I will quote it. The writer says:-

"So, it seems to me, is the immortality we so glibly predicate of
departed artists. If they survive at all, it is but a shadowy life
they live, moving on through the gradations of slow decay to distant
but inevitable death. They can no longer, as heretofore, speak
directly to the hearts of their fellow-men, evoking their tears or
laughter, and all the pleasures, be they sad or merry, of which
imagination holds the secret. Driven from the marketplace they
become first the companions of the student, then the victims of the
specialist. He who would still hold familiar intercourse with them
must train himself to penetrate the veil which in ever-thickening
folds conceals them from the ordinary gaze; he must catch the tone
of a vanished society, he must move in a circle of alien
associations, he must think in a language not his own." {5}

This is crying for the moon, or rather pretending to cry for it, for
the writer is obviously insincere. I see the Saturday Review says
the passage I have just quoted "reaches almost to poetry," and
indeed I find many blank verses in it, some of them very aggressive.
No prose is free from an occasional blank verse, and a good writer
will not go hunting over his work to rout them out, but nine or ten
in little more than as many lines is indeed reaching too near to
poetry for good prose. This, however, is a trifle, and might pass
if the tone of the writer was not so obviously that of cheap
pessimism. I know not which is cheapest, pessimism or optimism.
One forces lights, the other darks; both are equally untrue to good
art, and equally sure of their effect with the groundlings. The one
extenuates, the other sets down in malice. The first is the more
amiable lie, but both are lies, and are known to be so by those who
utter them. Talk about catching the tone of a vanished society to
understand Rembrandt or Giovanni Bellini! It's nonsense--the folds
do not thicken in front of these men; we understand them as well as
those among whom they went about in the flesh, and perhaps better.
Homer and Shakespeare speak to us probably far more effectually than
they did to the men of their own time, and most likely we have them
at their best. I cannot think that Shakespeare talked better than
we hear him now in "Hamlet" or "Henry the Fourth"; like enough he
would have been found a very disappointing person in a drawing-room.
People stamp themselves on their work; if they have not done so they
are naught; if they have we have them; and for the most part they
stamp themselves deeper in their work than on their talk. No doubt
Shakespeare and Handel will be one day clean forgotten, as though
they had never been born. The world will in the end die; mortality
therefore itself is not immortal, and when death dies the life of
these men will die with it--but not sooner. It is enough that they
should live within us and move us for many ages as they have and
will. Such immortality, therefore, as some men and women are born
to, achieve, or have thrust upon them, is a practical if not a
technical immortality, and he who would have more let him have

I see I have drifted into speaking rather of how to make the best of
death than of life, but who can speak of life without his thoughts
turning instantly to that which is beyond it? He or she who has
made the best of the life after death has made the best of the life
before it; who cares one straw for any such chances and changes as
will commonly befall him here if he is upheld by the full and
certain hope of everlasting life in the affections of those that
shall come after? If the life after death is happy in the hearts of
others, it matters little how unhappy was the life before it.

And now I leave my subject, not without misgiving that I shall have
disappointed you. But for the great attention which is being paid
to the work from which I have quoted above, I should not have
thought it well to insist on points with which you are, I doubt not,
as fully impressed as I am: but that book weakens the sanctions of
natural religion, and minimises the comfort which it affords us,
while it does more to undermine than to support the foundations of
what is commonly called belief. Therefore I was glad to embrace
this opportunity of protesting. Otherwise I should not have been so
serious on a matter that transcends all seriousness. Lord
Beaconsfield cut it shorter with more effect. When asked to give a
rule of life for the son of a friend he said, "Do not let him try
and find out who wrote the letters of Junius." Pressed for further
counsel he added, "Nor yet who was the man in the iron mask"--and he
would say no more. Don't bore people. And yet I am by no means
sure that a good many people do not think themselves ill-used unless
he who addresses them has thoroughly well bored them--especially if
they have paid any money for hearing him. My great namesake said,
"Surely the pleasure is as great of being cheated as to cheat," and
great as the pleasure both of cheating and boring undoubtedly is, I
believe he was right. So I remember a poem which came out some
thirty years ago in Punch, about a young lady who went forth in
quest to "Some burden make or burden bear, but which she did not
greatly care, oh Miserie." So, again, all the holy men and women
who in the Middle Ages professed to have discovered how to make the
best of life took care that being bored, if not cheated, should have
a large place in their programme. Still there are limits, and I
close not without fear that I may have exceeded them.

Samuel Butler

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