by George Santayana (1922)

In this world we must either institute conventional forms of expression or else pretend that we have nothing to express; the choice lies between a mask and a fig-leaf. Art and discipline render seemly what would be unseemly without them, but hypocrisy hides it ostentatiously under something irrelevant, and the fig-leaf is only a more ignominious mask. For the moment it is certainly easier to suppress the wild impulses of our nature than to manifest them fitly, at the right times and with the proper fugitive emphasis; yet in the long run suppression does not solve the problem, and meantime those maimed expressions which are allowed are infected with a secret misery and falseness. It is the charm and safety of virtue that it is more natural than vice, but many moralists do their best to deprive it of this advantage. They seem to think it would lose its value if they lost their office. Their precepts, as distinguished from the spontaneous appreciations of men, are framed in the interests of utility, and are curiously out of sympathy with the soul. Precept divides the moral world materially into right and wrong things; but nothing concrete is right or wrong intrinsically, and every object or event has both good and bad effects in the context of nature. Every passion, like life as a whole, has its feet in one moral climate and its head in another. Existence itself is not a good, but only an opportunity. Christians thank God for their creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, but life is the condition and source of all evil, and the Indians thank Brahma or Buddha for lifting them out of it. What metaphysical psychologists call Will is the great original sin, the unaccountable and irrational interest which the spirit takes, when it is incarnate, in one thing happening rather than another; yet this mad interest is the condition of generosity and of every virtue. Love is a red devil at one end of its spectrum and an ultra-violet angel at the other end.

Nor is this amphibious moral quality limited to the passions; all facts and objects in nature can take on opposite moral tints. When abstracted from our own presence and interests, everything that can be found or imagined is reduced to a mere essence, an ideal theme picked out of the infinite, something harmless, marvellous, and pure, like a musical rhythm or geometrical design. The whole world then becomes a labyrinth of forms and motions, a castle in the clouds built without labour and dissolved without tears. The moment the animal will reawakes, however, these same things acquire a new dimension; they become substantial, not to be created without effort nor rent without resistance; at the same time they become objects of desire and fear; we are so engrossed in existence that every phenomenon becomes questionable and ominous, and not so much a free gift and manifestation of its own nature as a piece of good or bad news. We are no longer surprised, as a free spirit would be, at the extraordinary interest we take in things turning out one way rather than another. We are caught in the meshes of time and place and care; and as the things we have set our heart on, whatever they may be, must pass away in the end, either suddenly or by a gentle transformation, we cannot take a long view without finding life sad, and all things tragic. This aspect of vanity and self-annihilation, which existence wears when we consider its destiny, is not to be denied or explained away, as is sometimes attempted in cowardly and mincing philosophies. It is a true aspect of existence in one relation and on a certain view; but to take this long view of existence, and look down the avenues of time from the station and with the emotions of some particular moment, is by no means inevitable, nor is it a fair and sympathetic way of viewing existence. Things when they are actual do not lie in that sort of sentimental perspective, but each is centred in itself; and in this intrinsic aspect existence is nothing tragic or sad, but rather something joyful, hearty, and merry. A buoyant and full-blooded soul has quick senses and miscellaneous sympathies: it changes with the changing world; and when not too much starved or thwarted by circumstances, it finds all things vivid and comic. Life is free play fundamentally and would like to be free play altogether. In youth anything is pleasant to see or to do, so long as it is spontaneous, and if the conjunction of these things is ridiculous, so much the better: to be ridiculous is part of the fun.

Existence involves changes and happenings and is comic inherently, like a pun that begins with one meaning and ends with another. Incongruity is a consequence of change; and this incongruity becomes especially conspicuous when, as in the flux of nature, change is going on at different rates in different strands of being, so that not only does each thing surprise itself by what it becomes, but it is continually astonished and disconcerted by what other things have turned into without its leave. The mishaps, the expedients, the merry solutions of comedy, in which everybody acknowledges himself beaten and deceived, yet is the happier for the unexpected posture of affairs, belong to the very texture of temporal being; and if people repine at these mishaps, or rebel against these solutions, it is only because their souls are less plastic and volatile than the general flux of nature. The individual grows old and lags behind; he remembers his old pain and resents it when the world is already on a new tack. In the jumble of existence there must be many a knock and many a grief; people living at cross purposes cannot be free from malice, and they must needs be fooled by their pretentious passions. But there is no need of taking these evils tragically. At bottom they are gratuitous, and might have been avoided if people had not pledged their hearts to things beyond their control and had not entrenched themselves in their illusions. At a sufficient remove every drama seems pathological and makes much ado about what to other people is nothing. We are interested in those vicissitudes, which we might have undergone if placed under the given circumstances; but we are happy to have escaped them. Thus the universe changes its hues like the chameleon, not at random but in a fashion which moral optics can determine, as it appears in one perspective or another; for everything in nature is lyrical in its ideal essence, tragic in its fate, and comic in its existence.

Existence is indeed distinguishable from the platonic essences that are embodied in it precisely by being a conjunction of things mutually irrelevant, a chapter of accidents, a medley improvised here and now for no reason, to the exclusion of the myriad other farces which, so far as their ideal structure is concerned, might have been performed just as well. This world is contingency and absurdity incarnate, the oddest of possibilities masquerading momentarily as a fact. Custom blinds persons who are not naturally speculative to the egregious character of the actual, because custom assimilates their expectations to the march of existing things and deadens their power to imagine anything different. But wherever the routine of a barbaric life is broken by the least acquaintance with larger ways, the arbitrariness of the actual begins to be discovered. The traveller will first learn that his native language is not the only one, nor the best possible, nor itself constant; then, perhaps, he will understand that the same is true of his home religion and government. The naturalist will begin by marvelling at the forms and habits of the lower animals, while continuing to attribute his own to their obvious propriety; later the heavens and the earth, and all physical laws, will strike him as paradoxically arranged and unintelligible; and ultimately the very elements of existence — time, change, matter, habit, life cooped in bodies — will reveal themselves to him in their extreme oddity, so that, unless he has unusual humility and respect for fact, he will probably declare all these actual things to be impossible and therefore unreal. The most profound philosophers accordingly deny that any of those things exist which we find existing, and maintain that the only reality is changeless, infinite, and indistinguishable into parts; and I call them the most profound philosophers in spite of this obvious folly of theirs, because they are led into it by the force of intense reflection, which discloses to them that what exists is unintelligible and has no reason for existing; and since their moral and religious prejudices do not allow them to say that to be irrational and unintelligible is the character proper to existence, they are driven to the alternative of saying that existence is illusion and that the only reality is something beneath or above existence. That real existence should be radically comic never occurs to these solemn sages; they are without one ray of humour and are persuaded that the universe too must be without one. Yet there is a capital joke in their own systems, which prove that nothing exists so strenuously, that existence laughs aloud in their vociferations and drowns the argument. Their conviction is the very ghost which it rises to exorcise; yet the conviction and the exorcism remain impressive, because they bear witness to the essential strangeness of existence to the spirit. Like the Ghost in Hamlet this apparition, this unthinkable fact, is terribly disturbing and emphatic; it cries to us in a hollow voice, "Swear!" and when in an agony of concern and affection we endeavour to follow it, "Tis here! 'Tis here! Tis gone!" Certainly existence can bewitch us; it can compel us to cry as well as to laugh; it can hurt, and that is its chief claim to respect. Its cruelty, however, is as casual as its enchantments; it is not cruel on purpose but only rough, like thoughtless boys. Coarseness — and existence is hopelessly coarse — is not an evil unless we demand refinement. A giggling lass that peeps at us through her fingers is well enough in her sphere, but we should not have begun by calling her Dulcinea. Dulcinea is a pure essence, and dwells only in that realm. Existence should be met on its own terms; we may dance a round with it, and perhaps steal a kiss; but it tempts only to flout us, not being dedicated to any constant love. As if to acknowledge how groundless existence is, everything that arises instantly backs away, bowing its excuses, and saying, "My mistake!" It suffers from a sort of original sin or congenital tendency to cease from being. This is what Heraclitus called Δίκη, or just punishment; because, as Mephistopheles long afterwards added, alles was entsteht ist wert dass es zugrunde geht — whatsoever arises deserves to perish; not of course because what arises is not often a charming creation, but because it has no prerogative to exist not shared by every Cinderella-like essence that lies eternally neglected in that limbo to which all things intrinsically belong — the limbo of unheard melodies and uncreated worlds. For anything to emerge from that twilight region is inexplicable and comic, like the popping up of Jack-in-the-box; and the shock will amuse us, if our wits are as nimble as nature and as quick as time. We too exist; and existence is a joy to the sportive side of our nature, itself akin to a shower of sparks and a patter of irrevocable adventures. What indeed could be more exhilarating than such a rout, if only we are not too exacting, and do not demand of it irrelevant perfections? The art of life is to keep step with the celestial orchestra that beats the measure of our career, and gives the cue for our exits and our entrances. Why should we willingly miss anything, or precipitate anything, or be angry with folly, or in despair at any misadventure? In this world there should be none but gentle tears, and fluttering tip-toe loves. It is a great Carnival, and amongst these lights and shadows of comedy, these roses and vices of the playhouse, there is no abiding.

Monadnock Valley Press > Santayana