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5. The Flag Of The World
When I was a boy there were two curious men running about who were called
the optimist and the pessimist. I constantly used the words myself, but I
cheerfully confess that I never had any very special idea of what they meant. The
only thing which might be considered evident was that they could not mean what
they said; for the ordinary verbal explanation was that the optimist thought this
world as good as it could be, while the pessimist thought it as bad as it could be.
Both these statements being obviously raving nonsense, one had to cast about
for other explanations. An optimist could not mean a man who thought everything
right and nothing wrong. For that is meaningless; it is like calling everything right
and nothing left. Upon the whole, I came to the conclusion that the optimist
thought everything good except the pessimist, and that the pessimist thought
everything bad, except himself. It would be unfair to omit altogether from the list
the mysterious but suggestive definition said to have been given by a little girl,
"An optimist is a man who looks after your eyes, and a pessimist is a man who
looks after your feet." I am not sure that this is not the best definition of all. There
is even a sort of allegorical truth in it. For there might, perhaps, be a profitable
distinction drawn between that more dreary thinker who thinks merely of our
contact with the earth from moment to moment, and that happier thinker who
considers rather our primary power of vision and of choice of road.
But this is a deep mistake in this alternative of the optimist and the pessimist.
The assumption of it is that a man criticises this world as if he were house-
hunting, as if he were being shown over a new suite of apartments. If a man
came to this world from some other world in full possession of his powers he
might discuss whether the advantage of midsummer woods made up for the
disadvantage of mad dogs, just as a man looking for lodgings might balance the
presence of a telephone against the absence of a sea view. But no man is in that
position. A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to
belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag
long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter,
he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.
In the last chapter it has been said that the primary feeling that this world is
strange and yet attractive is best expressed in fairy tales. The reader may, if he
likes, put down the next stage to that bellicose and even jingo literature which
commonly comes next in the history of a boy. We all owe much sound morality to
the penny dreadfuls. Whatever the reason, it seemed and still seems to me that
our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military
loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval. My acceptance of the universe is
not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world
is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable.
It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more
miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too