Location: The Clarence Darrow Collection Date: 1920
It’s an age-old question: “Is Life Worth Living?” It was also the topic of a public debate between Clarence Darrow and Prof. Frederick Starr held at the Garrick Theater on March 28, 1920 as part of the Workers University Society series of lectures. Darrow, who was referred to as the greatest living exponent on the philosophy of pessimism in the introduction, debated in the negative while noted Chicago University anthropologist Starr sided in the affirmative. (Darrow and Starr would also debate on other equally upbeat topics: “Is Civilization a Failure?” and ”Is the Human Race Getting Anywhere?” ) Following is a sample of Darrow’s rebuttal. What is interesting to note is Darrow’s references to retirement. While this debate was held in 1920, two of Darrow’s most famous cases were yet to come: The Leopold and Loeb murder case (1924) and the Scopes Trial (1925). Darrow died in 1938.
What does the great mass of the human race think about this question as to whether life is worth living, and whether this is in any way affected by the question of the destiny of Man? Why, since man began to dream dreams and see visions; since he evolved consciousness; since he looked around and asked the meaning of life and of death, he has sought by every means to prove that death is not death. He has braced up his love of life by making for himself a dream that there was something more to life than is shown by science or philosophy, or the facts that are apparent to every one who thinks. And, take that feeling from the human mind today, and take it suddenly, and it would be paralyzed, and men would not live their lives. There are a few who might live it out. But, to say that the question of the destiny of man does not affect his present happiness is to say that man has neither memory, nor imagination, nor consciousness, nor thought.
Men suffer from evils that never come, and they ex- perience joys that never come. A very large part of our conscious life is dreaming. We believe in happiness that will come tomorrow, and in misery that passed yesterday. We are terrified sometimes by disasters that will come tomorrow, more than we are by those that we lived through yesterday. Man’s brain is such that his mind will reach into the future and into the past and all about him, and the future and the past, whether it exists or not, does exist for the present, and is the largest part of the things which affect the happiness or the misery of the man. It is idle to say man must not take into account the question of his origin or the question of his destiny, when he considers whether life is worth living. Is it?
Now, I didn’t know that I grumbled so much. I don’t know why I should. I have got about through with the blooming game. I am about ready to retire. That does not mean I have money, but I study the actuary tables; I know I am about to retire. When I retire – well, while I will not be happy, I will not be miserable, and, as life goes, I believe I have as little cause for complaint as almost any person I know. And, I trust that I complain very little. At least I don’t mean to. I have lived a life which is, approximately, as good as nothing. Not quite, but somewhere near it. And I will not be very much better off when I am dead; but some what.
Does Professor Starr prove that life is worth living, be- cause man is here? If so, that is a simple question. By what process can you prove that everything that is here is worth while? Or, what do we mean by worth while? Of course you can ask a lot of questions in discussing this. Of course, if life is worth living to man because man is here, it is likewise worth living to every animal because it is here. It is worth living to the dog and the mouse and the cat that eats it. Of course, you might say that the life of the mouse is worth living to the cat that eats it. It is worth living to the ant and the grasshopper, and to those tiny insects who live only a fraction of an hour. And, in the sight of eternity, the longest human life is just as short. Even if the emotions, in the fraction of a hour, were all pleasant ones, it was not worth while to begin it when it was to end so quickly. The fact that life is here, to my mind, proves nothing, excepting that if you got a certain amount of earth and heat and water – if they were resolved into the simple elements given these elements in certain proportions under certain conditions, life will develop, just as maggots will in a cheese. Does that prove it is worth while? I cannot see it. It does not prove it in any meaning of the words worth while. If it does prove it, then everything is equally worth while, and the living man is no more a part of nature than the corpse. And the well man is no more a part of nature than the sick man. The pleasurable emotion is no more a part of nature than the painful emotion. The fact that it is here simply proves it is here, that is all. The only way that this question can be discussed, it seems to me is as an intellectual or philosophical question: Are the pleasurable emotions of life more than the painful ones? Is there a greater balance of pleasure than pain? And this cannot be discussed without taking into consideration every feeling and imagination that influences man, and influences the feelings of man. You cannot settle it by saying life is a question of health, wealth, happiness and wisdom.