A man really has little scientific control over the height of his ideal and the intensity of his belief in himself. He is born with them, as he is born with a certain pulse and a certain reflex action. He can neglect the ideal, so that it almost dissolves, but he cannot change its height. He can maim his belief in himself by persistent abandonment to folly, but he cannot lower its flame by an effort of the will, as he might lower the flame of a gas by a calculated turn of the hand. In the secret and inmost constitution of humanity it is ordained that the disparity between the aim and the achievement shall seem grotesque; it is ordained that there shall be an enormous fuss about pretty nearly nothing; it is ordained that the mountain shall bring forth a mouse. But it is also ordained that men shall go blithely on just the same, ignoring in practice the ridiculousness which they admit in theory, and drawing renewed hope and conceit from some magic, exhaustless source. And this is the whole philosophy of the New Year’s resolution.
ON THE LAST DAY OF THE YEAR
There are few people who arrive at a true understanding of life, even in the calm and disillusioned hours of reflection that come between the end of one annual period and the beginning of another. Nearly everybody has an idea at the back of his head that if only he could conquer certain difficulties and embarrassments, he might really start to live properly, in the full sense of living. And if he has pluck he says to himself: “I will smooth things out, and then I’ll really live.” In the same way, nearly everybody, regarding the spectacle of the world, sees therein a principle which he calls Evil; and he thinks: “If only we could get rid of this Evil, if only we could set things right, how splendid the world would be!” Now, in the meaning usually attached to it, there is no such positive principle as Evil. Assuming that there is such a positive principle in a given phenomenon—such as the character of a particular man—you must then admit that there is the same positive principle everywhere, for just as the character of no man is so imperfect that you could not conceive a worse, so the character of no man is so perfect that you could not conceive a better. Do away with Evil from the world, and you would not merely abolish certain specially distressing matters, you would change everything. You would in fact achieve perfection. And when we say that one thing is evil and another good, all that we mean is that one thing is less advanced than another in the way of perfection. Evil cannot therefore be a positive principle; it signifies only the falling short of perfection.