Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 21.djvu/604

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

the material prosperity of the Western Giaours, he interrupted him with a less expected question.

"The happiest people on earth, you call them? What age do they generally attain to?" Vambéry seems to have returned an evasive reply, though he admits that the query was not altogether irrelevant, at least from the stand-point of an Oriental who values existence for its own sake. But, even in the less unpretending West, longevity is not a bad criterion of happiness. Misfortune kills; Nature takes care to shorten a life of misery—for reasons of her own, too, for, in a somewhat recondite (but here essential) sense, the survival of the happiest is also the survival of the fittest. The progress of knowledge tends to circumscribe the realm of accident, and with it the belief in the existence of unmerited evils. In spite of prenatal influences and unprecalculable mishaps, the management of the individual is the most important factor in the sum total of weal or woe, If we could see ourselves as Omniscience sees us, we would probably recognize our worst troubles as the work of our own hands, and we thus recognize them now with sufficient clearness to be half ashamed of them. Most men nowadays dislike to confess their bad luck. We have ceased to ascribe diseases to the malice of capricious demons, and even in Spain the commander of a beaten army would hesitate to plead astrological excuses. Polycrates held that a plucky man can bias the stars, and the popular worship of success may be founded on an instinctive perception of a similar truth. Sultan Achmed went too far in his habit of strangling his defeated pashas, but the world in general agrees with him that there must be something wrong about a generally unsuccessful man. After two or three decided defeats the partisans of a popular leader will give him up for lost, and after a series of disasters the damaged man himself generally begins to share their opinion and loses heart, or, as the ancients expressed it, admits the decree of fate—i. e., his own inability to prevail in the struggle for existence; and it is curious how swiftly a physical collapse often follows upon such a giving way of the moral supports. The storms of every political, social, and financial crisis extinguish hundreds of life-flames; lost hope is a fatal (though a silent and sometimes an unconfessed and unsuspected) disease. Good luck, on the other hand, tends to prolong life; the longevity of pensioners and sinecurists is almost proverbial, and there are men who continue to live in defiance of all biological probabilities, merely because existence somehow or other has become desirable, as a liberal supply of external oxygen will nourish a lamp in default of the inner oil. At the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, King William and his chancellor and staff-officers were already gray-headed veterans, and it is no accident that they are all alive yet; while nearly all the ministers and marshals of the exploded empire have followed their leader—"weary of life and tired of buttoning and unbuttoning," as a captain of H. M. S. explained his suicide.