Empty Pessimism

Baltimore Evening Sun/October 27, 1910

The business man of today is a stranger to his wife. He hardly knows his own children. Our fathers had time for church, religion and books. The man of today falls into bed at night worn out by the day’s struggle.

This from a sermon preached in Baltimore lately. Such sophomoric pessimism, if it were rare, might be dismissed lightly, as a folly too trivial to be combated seriously, but, unluckily enough, it is howled from the housetops by thousands of eager sophists, and a great many unreflective folk have begun to accept it as sound philosophy. No fallacy, indeed, is in better credit at the moment than the fallacy that human life is growing more fatiguing every year. Upon it depends all of the latter-day nonsense about neurasthenia, hysteria, nervous prostration and other such terrible diseases. It is assumed, as a matter of course, that civilization is reducing the human race to a frazzle, and there are even persons who advocate a frank return to barbarism as the only means of preventing the extinction of the genus homo.

But what are the facts? Is it a fact that the average man of today works harder than the average man of, say, three or four centuries ago? Is it a fact that his mode of living makes him more vulnerable to disease? Is it a fact that his mind is tortured by cares and anxieties unknown to his forbears? Is it a fact that he is “a stranger to his wife,” that he “hardly knows his own children,” that he “falls into bed at night worn out by the day’s struggle”? Is it a fact, in brief, that he is more harassed, gets less out of life and dies earlier and more horribly, than the man of the fifteenth century or of the eighteenth century, or of 1875? I think not. It seems to me, on the contrary, that if there is anything certain in history it is the fact that the average man of today finds life a far more agreeable adventure than the average man of any other age. He works less and he has more pleasure. He lives longer, and he is happier and cleaner and more of a man while he lives.

The picture of the modern business man drawn by the shallow pessimists of the moment is a picture no more accurate than Cicero’s portrait of himself. It shows that business man as a stoop­shouldered, putty-faced slave, bending from 7 o’clock in the morning until midnight over a book of unpayable debts, his eyes fishy, his hands trembling, his bald head spattered with drops of freezing sweat. He is constantly on the verge of bankruptcy; the heel of some trust is always on his neck; he can never wrest enough money from the world to meet the exactions of his extravagant wife, his heartless daughter, his. dissolute son. He suffers incessantly from a host of loathsome diseases—neurasthenic, eczema, dandruff, chilblains, paranoia, malnutrition, adenoids, sciatica, smoker’s throat, alcoholism and dyspepsia. He dies miserably at the age of 16 or 17, having crowded the labor and waste of a decade into every year.

So much for the ideal business man of the jeremiads and patent medicine circulars. What about the real one? A very different fellow! Go seek him out in the wholesale district. You will find him paunchy, clear-skinned and well-barbered. He arrives at his office at 8.30 or 9 o’clock. At 1 o’clock he saunters out and engulfs a square meal. At 4.30 o’clock he falls asleep in his chair. At 5 o’clock the head bookkeeper awakens him and he goes home. His profits for the day have been $42.65. He has worked four hours. His “extravagant” wife, in the evening, spends two hours getting $6 out of him to buy a hat for their daughter. He is sound asleep at 10.30 o’clock.

Seriously, does anyone really believe that the modern business man is overharassed and overworked? He has worries, true enough, but who hasn’t? Did his predecessor of 50 or 100 or 500 years ago escape them? I think not. The merchant of the Middle Ages had to face not only the ordinary hazards of trade but also the hazards of piracy, of robbery on land, of confiscation, of ecclesiastical anathema. Even down to a century ago piracy and confiscation were very real dangers. A man put his all into a single venture by sea, and for two, three or four years heard nothing of his ships. Did that sort of trading conduce to untroubled repose?

Today the merchant is beset by no such troubles. The whole power of civilization is concentrated upon the task of protecting him, of safeguarding his property, of relieving his agonies of doubt and dread. Communications are quick, banks are sound, pirates have vanished, kings no longer raise money with the rack and wheel, elaborate and efficient laws protect a trader, not only in his legitimate enterprise but also in his chicaneries. A man engaged in commercial ventures may go to sleep at night with sure knowledge that, short of what insurance policies call acts of God, nothing can harm him save his own inefficiency.

But the working man—hasn’t civilization ground him to a pulp? If the reduction of his working hours by 50 percent, and the increase of his reward in beef and beer by 1,000 per cent-if this is grinding, then he has been ground. But his wife? Well, what of her? Co-operative industry has relieved her of two-thirds of the tasks which made her great-grandmother old at 40. But neurasthenia increases? Nonsense! Neurasthenia is one of the rarest of diseases—save in the Emmanuel movement books. All nervous disorders, great and little, are far less prevalent today than they ever were before. Hysteria, once an almost universal plague, is now rare. All save a few maladies are decreasing rapidly. The death rate is falling every year. The average man of today lives fully five years longer than the average man of but two generations ago.

But men have ceased to read, to meditate, to live the larger life. Balderdash! The common man of the eighteenth century didn’t read Homer and Milton. Instead, he read the newsletters on weekdays and Baxter’s Saint’s Rest on Sunday. Today the common man reads the newspapers and magazines—a distinct step forward. The sporting page of the worst yellow journal in the land offers far more healthful reading than the immortal Saint’s Rest. Prize­fighters, whatever their faults, at least inculcate an honorable self­reliance, a faith in man, a cleanly optimism. But the thing that Baxter taught was a pessimism so abject, so preposterous and so degrading that it is impossible for a man of today to read him without disgust. His philosophy, in brief, is abhorrent to the instincts of every man who respects himself and the race to which he belongs, just as other shallow booming, vapid and maudlin pessimism, whatever its authority, must be.

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.