How to Make the Best of Life: A Visionary Victorian Recipe for Lasting Self-Actualization
By Maria Popova
Even if we recognize the statistical-existential fact that death is an emblem of our luckiness, most living beings are emphatically averse to the idea of dying. Since the dawn of our species, in our poems and our psalms and our dreams of eternal life, we humans have been petitioning entropy for mercy, for exception, for a felicitous violation of the laws of physics. In prior ages, this was the task of religion, and it was a necessary task — all major religions arose at a time when most children never survived childhood, most people had lost a panoply of parents, children, siblings, and spouses by the end of their twenties, and most never lived past their forties. People needed a pleasing consolation just to live with such staggering levels of loss, and they found it in the soothing notion of an immortal soul that survives the body. In our own epoch, secular notions like cryogenics, transhumanism, and technological singularity have taken on that role, trying to get to immortality through the wormhole of some very slippery semi-science.
But what if the key to immortality was already ours, hidden in the very heart of our humanity, not in our science but in our art? So argues the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler (December 4, 1835–June 18, 1902) — a writer of uncommon foresight into our common future, epochs ahead of his time in his thinking, and still ahead of ours — in a lecture he delivered under the brief “How to Make the Best of Life.”
Butler begins by facing the magnitude of the question:
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.
In a sentiment Richard Dawkins would come to echo two human lifetimes later, Butler adds:
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.
But then he offers a wondrous perspective on our longing for immortality, both counterintuitive and grounded in the most fundamental truth of life, which is our creative conscience:
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.
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.
Considering what determines whether a person is making “the best of life” in this way — whether they are living up to their highest human potential, which ensures they go on living in other lives — Butler locates some of the key in “in the wideness of his or her sympathy with, and therefore life in and communion with other people.” We are able to recognize such everlasting lives “in the wreckage that comes ashore from the sea of time” — but they are not always those who reached greatness in their own lifetime, or those worshipped by the greatest number of posterity:
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.
If we are attentive enough to our inner lives, we can each recognize the influential dead living within us, whose life’s work has shaped and is shaping our own. (Figuring most dominantly in my own private retinue are Rachel Carson, Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, Hannah Arendt, Virginia Woolf, Lewis Thomas, Carl Sagan, and Rilke.) Those who attain such immortality, Butler intimates, are passionate lovers of life, enamored with all the dazzlements of nature and human nature:
We never love the memory of anyone unless we feel that he or she was himself or herself a lover.
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 on 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 nothing… He or she who has made the best of the life after death has made the best of the life before it.
With an eye to the imperceptible means by which we come to live in others, as others have come to live in us, he writes:
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.
It is by the force of our creative vitality, and by the generosity of spirit with which we share it with others, that we attain such immortality in the consciousness of others. Recognizing this as he looks over the landscape of his own creative field — the art of literature — Butler arrives at a common truth for all art:
Will [any artist] hesitate to admit that it is a lively pleasure to her to feel that on the other side of the world someone 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… 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.
In a lovely sentiment that would have sent Vonnegut into a vigorous nod, he considers the type of person who most readily reaches such immortality in others:
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 own.
Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on slaking our yearning for eternal life and Lisel Mueller’s splendid poem “Immortality,” then revisit Butler’s prophetic admonition for how to save ourselves in the age of artificial intelligence.
Published September 28, 2022