The paradox of courage is that a man must be a little careless of his life even in order to keep it. ~G.K. Chesterton
I saw in a newspaper paragraph the other day the following entertaining and deeply philosophical incident. A man was enlisting as a soldier at Portsmouth, and some form was put before him to be filled up, common, I suppose, to all such cases, in which was, among other things, an inquiry about what was his religion. With an equal and ceremonial gravity the man wrote down the word “Methuselahite.” Whoever looks over such papers must, I should imagine, have seen some rum religions in his time; unless the Army is going to the dogs. But with all his specialist knowledge he could not “place” Methuselahism among what Bossuet called the variations of Protestantism. He felt a fervid curiosity about the tenets and tendencies of the sect; and he asked the soldier what it meant. The soldier replied that it was his religion “to live as long as he could.”
Now, considered as an incident in the religious history of Europe, that answer of that soldier was worth more than a hundred cartloads of quarterly and monthly and weekly and daily papers discussing religious problems and religious books. Every day the daily paper reviews some new philosopher who has some new religion; and there is not in the whole two thousand words of the whole two columns one word as witty or as wise as that word “Methuselahite.” The whole meaning of literature is simply to cut a long story short; and that is why our modern books of philosophy are never literature. That soldier had in him the very soul of literature; he was one of the great phrase-makers of modern thought, like Victor Hugo or Disraeli. He found one word that defines the paganism of to-day.
Henceforward, when the modern philosophers come to me with their new religions (and there is always a kind of queue of them waiting all the way down the street) I shall anticipate their circumlocutions and be able to cut them short with a single inspired word. One of them will begin, “The New Religion, which is based upon that Primordial Energy in Nature…” “Methuselahite,” I shall say sharply; “good morning.” “Human Life,” another will say, “Human Life, the only ultimate sanctity, freed from creed and dogma…” “Methuselahite!” I shall yell. “Out you go!” “My religion is the Religion of Joy,” a third will explain (a bald old man with a cough and tinted glasses), “the Religion of Physical Pride and Rapture, and my…” “Methuselahite!” I shall cry again, and I shall slap him boisterously on the back, and he will fall down. Then a pale young poet with serpentine hair will come and say to me (as one did only the other day): “Moods and impressions are the only realities, and these are constantly and wholly changing. I could hardly therefore define my religion…” “I can,” I should say, somewhat sternly. “Your religion is to live a long time; and if you stop here a moment longer you won’t fulfill it.”
A new philosophy generally means in practice the praise of some old vice. We have had the sophist who defends cruelty, and calls it masculinity. We have had the sophist who defends profligacy, and calls it the liberty of the emotions. We have had the sophist who defends idleness, and calls it art. It will almost certainly happen–it can almost certainly be prophesied–that in this saturnalia of sophistry there will at some time or other arise a sophist who desires to idealize cowardice. And when we are once in this unhealthy world of mere wild words, what a vast deal there would be to say for cowardice! “Is not life a lovely thing and worth saving?” the soldier would say as he ran away. “Should I not prolong the exquisite miracle of consciousness?” the housekeeper would say as he hid under the table. “As long as there are roses and lilies on the earth shall I not remain there?” would come the voice of the citizen from under the bed. It would be quite as easy to defend the coward as a kind of poet and mystic as it has been, in many recent books, to defend the emotionalist as a kind of poet and mystic, or the tyrant as a kind of poet and mystic. When the last grand sophistry and morbidity is preached in a book or on a platform, you may depend upon it there will be a great stir among the little people who live among books and platforms. There will be a new great Religion, the Religion of Methuselahism: with pomps and priest and altars. Its devout crusaders will vow themselves in thousands with a great vow to live long. But there is one comfort: they won’t.
For, indeed, the weakness of this worship of mere natural life (which is a common enough creed to-day) is that it ignores the paradox of courage and fails in its own aim. As a matter of fact, no men would be killed quicker than the Methuselahites. The paradox of courage is that a man must be a little careless of his life even in order to keep it. And in the very case I have quoted we may see an example of how little the theory of Methuselahism really inspires our best life. For there is one riddle in that case which cannot easily be cleared up. If it was the man’s religion to live as long as he could, why on earth was he enlisting as a soldier?