30 May 2013

The Art of Living

A. C. Benson, Escape, and Other Essays (London: Smith Elder, 1915), pp. 278-281:
[A]rt in its largest sense is the faculty we have of observing and comparing and wondering; and the people who make the most of life are the people who give their imagination wings; and then, too, comes in the further feeling, which leads us to try and shape our own life and conduct on the lines of what we admire and think beautiful; the dull word duty means that, that we choose what is not necessarily pleasant because for some mysterious reason we feel happier so; because, however much we may pretend to think otherwise, we are all of us at every moment intent upon happiness, which is a very different thing from pleasure, and sometimes quite contrary to it.
And so we come at last to the art of living, which is really a very delicate balancing and comparing of reasons, an attempt, however blind and feeble, to get at happiness; and the moment that this attempt ceases and becomes merely a dull desire to be as comfortable as we can, that moment the spirit begins to go down hill, and the value of life is over; unless perhaps we learn that we cannot afford to go down hill, and that every backward step will have to be painfully retraced, somewhere or other.
What, then, I would try to persuade anyone who is listening to me is that we must use our wills somehow to try experiments, to observe, to distinguish, to follow what we think fine and beautiful. It may be said that this is only a sort of religion, and indeed it is exactly that at which I am aiming. It is a religion, which is within the reach of many people who cannot be touched by what is technically called religion. Religion is a word that has unhappily become specialised. It stands for beliefs, doctrines, ceremonies, practices. But these may not, and indeed do not, suit many of us. The worst of definite religions is that they are too definite. They try to enforce upon us a belief in things which we find incredible, or perhaps think to be simply unknowable; or they make out certain practices to be important, which we do not think important. We must never do violence to our minds and souls by professing to believe what we do not believe, or to think things certain which we honestly believe to be uncertain; but at the same time we must remember that there is always something of beauty inside every religion, because religion involves a deliberate choice of better motives and better actions, and an attempt to exclude the baser and viler elements of life.