What is life, anyway?*

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What is life, anyway? For that is a practical question. What is it that we should prize it so highly? Do any of you dare tell the truth to yourselves? There is not a person in this audience that dares tell himself the truth about life. Do you remember the story- I believe it came from Homer- about some shipwrecked mariners who were cast upon an island. And, in that island was a great giant with one eye, and that eye had been put out. But, somehow or other, he managed to get all these people into an iron cage, and; every morning he would come out for breakfast, run his arms into the iron cage and feel this one and that one to see which was the fattest, take him off and cook him for breakfast. No one knew whose turn would come next. Each one knew that his time was near, that he might be next. That is life, isn’t it? A great insane, purposeless, uncontrolled, uncontrollable, hand, reaching down, without though or design or pity, taking this and that, as the case may be, inevitable, unfailingly, and yet we are optimists! Do you want to live your lives over, any of you! Would I want to? Would anybody want to? There might be vagrant parts of my life, strong sensations, pleasant memories. But barring those, the time I would want to live over, would be the time I was asleep- that is the time I was dead- that is all. And every weary person comes home at night happy in the thought that he can sleep. And if he cannot sleep without it, he takes dope to make him sleep, because forgetfulness is the best of all.

Suppose you lived with nothing but pleasant sensations. Suppose all was joy and peace and happiness; that you never had the toothache, or corns, or debts, and you knew you must die, that you had to give up all the beauty and glory and love of life and go down to the silent grave forever, would not this alone rob life of joy and make a hell of earth? Life is an unpleasant interruption of a peaceful nothingness–and when the interruption is over, you are at peace. It is a pleasant thought!

How do we live? Does anybody live it honestly? Or do we live it by everlastingly deceiving ourselves? Do we live upon facts or do we live upon feelings, emotions, dreams and imaginings? …. Have I ever lived the truth? Let me be honest for a moment. I have not lived on today; neither have you; I have lived on tomorrow; on next summer; on next year. The man does not live who can open his eyes upon the facts of life and live. He lives upon what is created by his dreams, and he  can live in no other way. I try more than most men to look life in the face; to strip it of its illusions and disillusions and live it as it is. But, can I do it?…
Do I want the truth? Do I live on it? Not for a moment. Nobody lives on it. If I suspect that somebody has some nasty criticism to make do I try to hear it? Or do I run away?…

What am I living on now? What are you living on? Well, you might have lived the last week on this debate- I don’t know. If you did, it is not so good as you expected. Just now, I am rather living on next summer’s vacation, when I expect to go up in the mountains, and write a book- pass down some of my wisdom to enlighten the world that is yet to come! Now, that is my emotion. When I turn my intellect on it, I know that if I go into the mountains, there will be mosquitoes and there will be people, like mosquitoes. And they will come close to me, and I cannot get away from them, and I will be annoyed – I won’t even have the comforts of home- and I probably will not write my book, and if I do, nobody will read it, and it will not be true, anyhow. But, I am living on it.

And beyond that I have another vision of going around the world in a year or so. I am living on that. But, I know that when I get to Baghdad, I will wish I were back in Chicago working. And, wherever I go, I will not be able to get rid of myself! I will not be able to get rid of my everlasting, doubting, inquiring mind, that reaches out into the future, and all about me, and asks these perplexing questions and will not rest. And no man can do it. Ignorance means happiness. The typical optimist is the barnyard hog. He grunts in contentment through his short life; plunges into the scalding water, and it is all over within a moment. But, until he lunges he is always happy.
As we reach out and ask ourselves questions, understand the futility of all of it, feel our own pain and the suffering of our fellowmen, see life as life really is, then we are unhappy and must be unhappy forever.

*The full text of Clarence Darrow‘s debate speech can be read here –  “The Darrow – Foster debate on: Is life worth living?” 

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1 Comment

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One response to “What is life, anyway?*

  1. wow, i totally disagree with everything but the prose is impeccable, so well articulated, clearer than most philosophers i’ve read and very penetrating indeed.

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