Life's Answer to the Riddle of Eternity

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Life's Answer to the Riddle of Eternity is an article published in The People on 23 june 1929.

The article includes quotes from Arthur Conan Doyle's article : An Open Letter To those of my Generation (22 may 1929).

Life's Answer to the Riddle of Eternity

The People (29 april 1928, p. 9)

At the age of seventy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has addressed an open letter to the men and women of his own generation. And he begins it with the serene reminder: "We are about to die — you and I."

Of recent years Sir Arthur, the creator of "Sherlock Holmes," has devoted all his energies to the study of what he regards as a new science and a new philosophy of life — spiritualism.

On that subject "The People" has an open mind. holding the case for spiritualism "not proven." But it regards Sir Arthur's letter as a remarkable invitation to thought on a subject of universal importance, and is glad, for that reason, to publish the following article by a special correspondent.

Special to "The People."

The new-born babe in its cradle has begun to die. Inexorably we are marching, every one of us, towards the grave. It is not a cheerful thought, but it is a truth that it is good for us, at times, to face.

In an open letter to those of his own generation. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a man of seventy. who is still wonderfully fit, calmly reminds his fellow septuagenarians that he and they are about to die. He is serene in this knowledge, because he sees in death nothing more than the gateway to a new life. He is not "about to die", he is only about to make a long journey.

"Young folk," writes Sir Arthur, "even though Death may really be very near them, can reasonably put off the consideration of what is probably a distant event."

I appreciate this point of view, but I do not accept it. One may well put on consideration of an event which may never happen, but it is folly. at any age, to ignore inevitable fate. Young or old. we must all die, and none can tell the hour of the summons.

I am reminded of a grimly humorous short story which I read some time ago. It concerned a man lying under sentence of death and another convict condemned to life imprisonment. The first was stubbornly cheerful; the second hugged to his heart the sorry comfort that he was luckier than his neighbour, who must soon perish on the scaffold.

They met in the prison yard and exchanged jerky sentences. "At least," snarled the "lifer," "I am not doomed to die."

"Fool!" replied the other. "We are all doomed to die."

And it so happened that the convict had a fatal heart attack that same night, while the condemned man was reprieved next morning and lived to a ripe old age.

Brutus, in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," was thankful that "life never lacks power to dismiss itself." He faced death with a stoic's philosophy, not as the beginning of a new existence, but as a release from the burden of this world. Many men in this twentieth century take the same view. It is a philosophy that has few terrors, but it is without comfort and without inspiration.

Yet there are only two possibilities. Either death is the gateway to new life as the churches and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believe, or it is extinction — the bursting of the bubble, the vanishing of the flame.

There is no escape from that alternative, and how many of us can honestly believe in extinction? Is it possible for any man even to imagine a universe that continues after he has ceased to exist? There are cold scientists, like Sir Arthur Keith, who may accept this shattering possibility with their reasnning minds, but do they accept it in their innermost hearts?

I doubt it. We live in a subjective world. Nothing exists for us outside our own consciousness and, if consciousness itself shall perish, how shall the world continue?

If death ended all, then — to quote Sir Arthur — "not only all your worldly possessions, which is a small thing, but all that you love, all those dear intimacies, all your own knowledge and character, built up at the cost of so much work and such trying experience, all would vanish like a burst bubble and have no place in the universe at all any more. That is a sad prospect."


Sad, indeed, if it were true! To many of us it would represent an intolerable frustration — a devil's jest, and the negation of all justice.

But it is not true. Even the scientists, are, many of them, on the side of immortality Professor Stanley Eddington, the famous astronomer, cannot believe that the Maker of the infinite firmament should have made a mockery of man. Sir Oliver Lodge, the towering genius of modern science, has a sure and tranquil belief in the immortality of the soul.

Moreover, we cannot ignore the simple faith of kindly men and women who, believing that this life is but a preparation for some life to come, strive for a happiness that is not dependent wholly upon material things.

It follows from all this that the importance of death is nothing in comparison with the importance of life. If death ends all, then how little is our time for happiness, how essential that our brief hour should not be wasted!

But, knowing that death is only a new beginning, it is immensely important that we should do what we can now to prepare for the wider life beyond the grave. There are few people to-day, even in the Christian churches, who still believe that we shall come up for judgment before a revengeful deity, or that, being found wanting, we should be consigned, as Conan Doyle puts it to "a celestial counterpar of the Spanish Inquisition, and suffer such agonies as are unknown upon earth."

It cannot reasonably be supposed that all we do in this world has no bearing upon what happens to us in the next. "I would not have you think," writes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "that the same fate must come to all, however much their lives have differed in quality. That would not be reasonable or just."


"It is those who love us who meet us and make death a joyous reunion. But if we have never won love they cannot be there."

"Who is there to meet the selfish man, the cruel man, the man who lives for himself alone? For such people it is indeed a bleak and dismal moment, for they have begun to reap the harvest they have sown."

Sir Arthur might have said that such people continue the reaping of the harvest they have sown. They have nearly always begun to reap it before death overtakes them. For the selfish man or woman never finds happiness, and those who live for themselves alone have never known the full meaning of life.

I am not personally greatly concerned with Conan Doyle's special beliefs in a future state. He and many other spiritualists find great comfort in their own faith but the same may be said of tons of thousands of other believers in many creeds orthodox and unorthodox.

Sir Arthur's own letter impresses me chiefly as a challenge to face reality, an invitation to consider humanity's supreme problem. He writes to those "about to die", but his message is equally important for those about to live — the young people on the threshold of their adult life as well as the elderly men and women nearing the end of their course.

If we believe that we must wake from the last sleep there need be no terror in the prospect of death. But such a belief must necessarily affect our standards of conduct. We cannot hope for a welcome which we have not earned or expect happiness which we have done nothing to deserve.

Nearly two thousand years ago the Greatest of all Teachers gave to the world a philosophy of life that is a sure guide to happiness in this world and the next. That is the immortal philosophy contained in the Sermon on the Mount.