A child may ask, "What is the world's story
about?" And a grown man or woman may wonder, "What way will the world
go? How does it end and, while we're at it, what's the story about?"
I believer that there is one story in the
world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we
live in a Peral White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans
are caught - in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and
ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity
too - in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have
and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue
and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will
be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose
on river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story.
A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will
have only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have
I done well - or ill?...
...And in our time, when a man dies - if
he has had wealth and influence and power and all the vestments that
arouse envy, and after the living take stock of the dead man's property
and his eminence and works and monuments - the question is still there:
Was his life good or was it evil? - which is another way of putting Croesus's
question. Envies are gone, and the measuring stick is: "Was he loved
or was he hated? Is his death felt as a loss or does a kind of joy come
I remember clearly the deaths of three men.
One was the richest man of the century, who, having clawed his way to
wealth through the souls and bodies of men, spent many years trying to
buy back the love he had forfeited and by that process performed great
service to the world and, perhaps, had much more than balanced the evils
of his rise. I was on a ship when he died. The news was posted on the
bulletin board, and nearly everyone received the news with pleasure.
Several said, "Thank God that son of a bitch is dead."
There was a man, smart as Satan, who, lacking
some perception of human dignity and knowing all too well every aspect
of human weakness and wickedness, used his special knowledge to warp
men, to buy men, to bribe and threaten and seduce until he found himself
in a position of great power. He clothed his motives in the name of virtue,
and I have wondered whether he knew that no gift will ever buy back a
man's love when you have removed his self-love. A bribed man can only
hate his briber. When this man died the nation rang with praise and,
just beneath, with gladness that he was dead.
There was a third man, who perhaps made many
errors in performance but whose effective life was devoted to making
men brave and dignified and good in a time when they were poor and frightened
and when ugly forces were loose in the world to utilize those fears.
This man was hated by the few. When he died the people burst into tears
in the streets and their minds wailed, "What can we do now? How can we
go on without him?"
In uncertainty I am certain that underneath
their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved.
Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a
man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius,
if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a
cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two
courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try to
live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.
We have only one story. All novels, all poetry,
are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.
And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while
virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue
is venerable as nothing else in the world is.