Therefore I hated life; because the work that is worked under the sun is grievous to me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
"Is life worth living?" is a question that is continually coming before the public mind in one form or another. When Mr. Maddock's book appeared, as many of you may remember, there was an attempt to make light of it by the pun contained in the supposed doctor's answer, "It depends on the liver. This has been capped by Punch's" clergyman, who replies, "It depends on the living." One must, however, approach the matter with the utmost seriousness, as it touches upon the deep basal truths and principles of existence, and is too solemn a subject to admit of any flippancy in our treatment of it. The problem would be met by an unqualified affirmative wherever life is young, healthy, and active, and the environment favourable to a rich, varied, and exuberant form of existence. In some respects, therefore, the doctor is right; it does depend upon the state of the health and the physical condition. I wonder what a happy schoolboy, rushing out with the football under his arm, would say if he were asked, "Is life worth living?" His expression would be a curious study as he gave his reply, and would itself convey deep significance. What a happy thing it would be if that schoolboy aspect of life were only exchanged for a deeper conviction of its fuller value and noble possibilities, and that it should never occur to us to ask whether this breath of life might not as well cease, and that perhaps the whole had been a hideous mistake! The words of the Koheleth express the sentiment of those who thus pass an adverse sentence upon the value of life, condemning both the career of the wise man and the fool, and who have come to hate life, for "all is vanity and vexation of spirit" or "a striving after wind." The grand old Greeks, with their highly-refined conditions of life, and life itself full of richness and variety, end ennobled by the splendid idealism of the fine arts, now and then fell into this sad vein. Even the ancient poet, the "sunny-brewed" Homer, sang —
"For there is nothing whatever more wretched than man
Of all things that breathe and that move o'er the earth."We have, further, in Theognis, "It would be best for the children of the earth not to be born... next best for them, when born, to pass through the gates of Hades as soon as possible." Can anything be more touching than the words of Cassandra in "Agamemnon" by AEschylus: "Alas for the conditions of mortals! When prosperous, a shadow may overturn them; if, however, they be in adversity, a moistened sponge blots out the picture." Then we find Seneca, one of the best of the Roman Stoics, whose maxims came so near to many of the sayings of St. Paul, praising death as the "best invention of nature," and Marcus Aurelius, "a seeker after God," expressing his disgust at human life, with the apostrophe, "O death, delay not thy coming." There is much the same in the literature of Persia, and in the sphere of the religion of "the light." The pure-souled and seraphic considers that "True wisdom is a desire to be nothing, to be blown out, to enter into Nirvana, i.e. extinction." Coming to modern times we find in French literature of the Pompadour period the same strain of melancholy. Diderot wrote, "To be, amid pain and weeping, the plaything of uncertainty, of error, of want, of sickness, and of passions — every step, from the moment when we learn to lisp, to the time of departure, when our voice falters — this is called the most important gift of our parents and of nature — life." This is more than equalled by the words of Sehelling, "The death's head never fails behind the ogling mask, and life is only the cap and bells which the nonentity has donned just to make a jingle, and afterwards to tear it to pieces and east it away." These instances will suffice to indicate the strongly marked pessimistic tendency amongst some of the finest thinkers, and would lead those who are predisposed to this kind of philosophizing to the inevitable conviction that, on the whole, life is not worth living.
1. The value of life, if judged from the point of view of happiness, depends upon the sum of its functional activities and interests. Our pessimistic views concerning life are largely the result of our mistaken ideas of happiness. We are apt to imagine that health, leisure, and a splendid income are absolutely necessary to our happiness; and when there is a prospect of losing these permanently, life is no longer desirable. No man is really unhappy who realizes that he has work to do and sets himself in earnest to do it. The utmost of pain and sorrow can be borne if only one has an object in life. Men who throw up all for lost are those who have abandoned, if they ever had it, their object in life. Let a person once set his mind upon some worthy aim, and allow his interest to centre in that, and let it absorb his energies, and never will he think of laying violent hands upon himself. When the Christians assembled in the catacombs we discover none of those traces of pessimism that are so characteristic of the poems of Horace. Their interest was centred in their Lord and Master, and His royal will. We can understand, then, how a truly Christian man, following in the experiences of the Apostle Paul, would apprehend Christ to be the true object of existence. "To live is Christ," to learn about Christ, to live for Christ, to gain Christ, and to realize the life and character of Christ within oneself, so that the very principle of the within, is Christ. Such realization gives life its value.
2. The value of life further depends upon its extrinsic utilities in the service of our fellows. We owe a debt of gratitude to the past, which can only be paid to the future, for this, and it is a point of honour, that every man should acknowledge, to make his life valuable to others to those who shall come after him. It would be ignoble to slight that which has cost so much to develop, and especially since every life is capable of being made useful in a greater or less degree.
3. If we are men of faith we shall value life for the sake of its higher development beyond the grave. Even though this life were spent in a purgatory of torture, or a hell of pain, which life need never be, no one who believes in the Christ can deny that the great hereafter will more than obliterate the traces of this sorrowful world in the glorious activities of the heavenly state and all its grand developments. Cheer up, brothers, and brace yourselves for manly effort. There are no sorrows or difficulties that a brave-hearted man, who trusts in Cod, need fear to encounter. Whatever straits one may find oneself in, there is no lot so painful, so bitter, or so trying that it may not be sweetened and ennobled by effort — and that effort will be our joy.
(J. G. James, B. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit.