J. F. Stephen’s world-philosophy, according to his brother

James Fitzjames Stephen’s brother, Leslie Stephen, wrote one of the famous Victorian’s biographies. Here’s an excerpt I really enjoyed:

“Despair is the vilest of words.” That expresses Fitzjames’s whole belief and character. Faiths may be shaken and dogmas fade into meaningless jumbles of words: science may be unable to supply any firm ground for conduct. Still we can quit ourselves like men. From doubt and darkness he can still draw the practical conclusion, “Be strong and of a good courage.” And, therefore, Fitzjames could not be a pessimist in the proper sense; for the true pessimist is one who despairs of the universe. Such a man can only preach resignation to inevitable evil, and his best hope is extinction. Sir Alfred Lyall’s fine poem describes the Hindoo ascetic sitting by the bank of the sacred stream and watching the legions as they pass while cannon roar and bayonets gleam. To him they are disturbing phantoms, and he longs for the time when they will flicker away like the smoke of the guns on the windswept hill. He meanwhile sits “musing and fasting and hoping to die.” Fitzjames is the precise antithesis: his heart was with the trampling legions, and for the aesthetic he might feel pity, but certainly neither sympathy nor respect. He goes out of his way more than once to declare that he sees nothing sublime in Buddhism. “Nirvana,” he says in a letter, “always appeared to me to be at bottom a cowardly ideal. For my part I like far better the Carlylean or Calvinist notion of the world as a mysterious hall of doom, in which one must do one’s fated part to the uttermost, acting and hoping for the best and trusting that somehow or other our admiration of the ‘noblest human qualities’ will be justified.” He had thus an instinctive dislike not only for Buddhism, but also for the strain of similar sentiment in ascetic versions of Christianity. He had a great respect for Mohammedanism, and remarks that of all religious ceremonies at which he had been present, those which had most impressed him had been a great Mohammedan feast in India and the service in a simple Scottish kirk. There, as I interpret him, worshippers seem to be in the immediate presence of the awful and invisible Power which rules the universe; and without condescending to blind themselves by delusive symbols and images and incense and priestly magic, stand face to face with the inscrutable mystery. The old Puritanism comes out in a new form. The Calvinist creed, he says in “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” was the “grain on which the bravest, hardiest, and most vigorous race of men that ever trod the earth were nourished.” That creed, stripped of its scholastic formulas, was sufficient nourishment for him. He sympathises with it wherever he meets it.

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