The Book of Seer

Burroughs, John. Accepting the Universe. New York. Houghton Mifflin.

IN order to get all of John Burroughs, it would be necessary to follow the development of his personality throughout his writings from the beginning, and this would be a wise undertaking for any thinking man: but the quintessence of his personality may now be found in a single book of 300 pages. The opportunity thus offered should appeal to a bargaining world, and is far greater than most readers are likely to realize at first thought: for it is no less than an opportunity to possess with relatively little effort, the results attained by one of the richest lives of our time.

In “Accepting the Universe” we behold the truly sublime spectacle of an aged seer contemplating the mysteries of the cosmos with the optimism of clear seeing. The mood of the book is intensely religious in the only enduring sense; but there is no “uplift” twaddle, no “sunshine” stuff, such as our sentimental pseudophilosophers put into Christmas books for the unwary. Nor will the dogmatic reader find much to please him in these pages.

The fundamental assumption of the author is that life is essentially good; but this has been with him no easy assumption based upon personal satisfaction with his own fortunes. It is an impersonal assumption, based upon scientific knowledge and seerlike in-sight. “I am a radical optimist,” proclaims John Burroughs, and then, by way of taking the wind out of the sails of the radical pessimist, he proceeds to emphasize what is sometimes described as the blundering cruelty of natural processes.

“Nature’s ways are not our ways! Her system of economics would soon bring us to bankruptcy. She has no rival, no competitor, no single end in view, no more need to store up wealth than to scatter it. . . The potato bug, if left alone, would exterminate the potato and so exterminate itself; the currant worm would exterminate the currant; the forest worms would exterminate the forests, did not parasites appear and check their ravages. Nature trumps her own tricks: she scuttles her own ship; she mines her own defenses; she poisons her own fountains; she [mows down?] in her own wheat, and yet she wins, because she is All. The tares are hers, the parasites are hers, the devastating floods and storms are hers, the earthquakes and volcanoes are hers, disease and death are hers, as well as youth and health. The cancer that eats into the vitals of a man — what keeps it going but Nature’s forces and fluids? A malignant tumor is as much an expression of Providence as a baby or a flower. Nature cuts the ground from under her own feet; she saws off the limb upon which she is perched, but if she falls, she alights in her own lap.”

These may seem wild words to those who are acquainted only with mankind’s premature guesses at the Great Mystery; and to many others they will certainly seem, at first glance, anything but the utterance of a “radical optimist.”

But wait a moment! Is not our chief fault in this world — and therefore the prime source of our woes — to be found in our habitual personal outlook? A man calls bad that which frustrates his momentary desires. Our course is petty personalism. We forget that the universe is for everything in it quite as much as for man, and that what is “bad” for us is “good” for something else. But it is not necessary to take the ultra human view of the cosmos in order to detect our error. In matters pertaining solely to the human species we err through our insistence upon the individual; whereas, it is the whole rare life that really counts. By means of the very antagonism and apparent brutalities of natural processes deployed by the suffering individual, the race has developed to what it now is and will develop more, doubtless, thanks to the same [agency?].

The universe is good, life is good — not necessarily for any given individual, but for that larger, continuous entity, the race.

This, in brief, is the attitude of John Burroughs, as illustrated in hundreds of ways throughout the book and supported by scientific knowledge; and it will be noted by those who go deeply into his argument how well the whole outlook coincides with the essentials of revealed religion.

It is remarkable that a philosophic view of man and the cosmos, so thoroughly in keeping with the [major?] tendencies of modern scientific thought should come from a man who is near the end of his earthly life. Such are generally conservative to the verge of ossification. But Burroughs has been able, by virtue of surpassing genius, to keep an open mind; and at the threshold of a new world he is able to [speak?] a tremendous word of hope for the young who shall live there after he is gone.

The universe is essentially good. [Life?] is good! To say this with profound conviction based upon a lifetime of [utility?] is to worship God as few men ever succeed in worshiping.

Here is a wonderful book indeed.