The religious saints have insisted that joy is crime – that beauty is a bait with which the Devil captures the souls of men – that laughter leads to sin – that pleasure, in its every form, degrades, and that love itself is but the loathsome serpent of unclean desire. They have tried to compel men to love shadows rather than women – phantoms rather than people.
The saints have been the assassins of sunshine – the skeletons at feasts. They have been the enemies of happiness. They have hated the singing birds, the blossoming plants. They have loved the barren and the desolate – the croaking raven and the hooting owl – tombstones, rather than statues.
And yet, with a strange inconsistency, happiness was to be enjoyed forever, in another world. There, pleasure, with all its corrupting influences, was to be eternal. No one pretended that heaven was to be filled with self-denial, with fastings and scourgings, with weepings and regrets, with solemn and emaciated angels, with sad-eyed seraphim, with lonely parsons, with mumbling monks, with shriveled nuns, with days of penance and with nights of prayer.
Yet all this self-denial on the part of the saints was founded in the purest selfishness. They were to be paid for all their sufferings in another world. They were “laying up treasures in heaven.” They had made a bargain with God. He had offered eternal joy to those who would make themselves miserable here. The saints gladly and cheerfully accepted the terms. They expected pay for every pang of hunger, for every groan, for every tear, for every temptation resisted; and this pay was to be an eternity of joy. The selfishness of the saints was equaled only by the stupidity of the saints.
It is not true that character is the aim of life. Happiness should be the aim – and as a matter of fact is and always has been the aim, not only of sinners, but of saints. The saints seemed to think that happiness was better in another world than here, and they expected this happiness beyond the clouds. They looked upon the sinner as foolish to enjoy himself for the moment here, and in consequence thereof to suffer forever. Character is not an end, it is a means to an end. The object of the saint is happiness hereafter – the means, to make himself miserable here. The object of the philosopher is happiness here and now, and hereafter – if there be another world.
If struggle and temptation, misery and misfortune, are essential to the formation of what you call character, how do you account for the perfection of your angels, or for the goodness of your God? Were the angels perfected through misfortune? If happiness is the only good in heaven, why should it not be considered the only good here?
In order to be happy, we must be in harmony with the conditions of happiness. It cannot be obtained by prayer – it does not come from heaven – it must be found here, and nothing should be done, or left undone, for the sake of any supernatural being, but for the sake of ourselves and other natural beings.
The early Christians were preparing for the end of the world. In their view, life was of no importance except as it gave them time to prepare for “The Second Coming.” They were crazed by fear. Since that time, the world not coming to the expected end, they have been preparing for “The Day of Judgment,” and have, to the extent of their ability, filled the world with horror. For centuries, it was, and still is, their business to destroy the pleasures of this life. In the midst of prosperity they have prophesied disaster. At every feast they have spoken of famine, and over the cradle they have talked of death. They have held skulls before the faces of terrified babes. On the cheeks of health they see the worms of the grave, and in their eyes the white breasts of love are naught but corruption and decay.