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 The two individuals in the foregoing parable1 were worrying each other with fundamental questions. And what makes the parable unrealistic is the improbability of real individuals ever doing any such thing. If the plain man, for instance, has almost ceased to deal in fundamental questions in these days, the reason is not difficult to find. The reason lies in the modern perception that fundamental questions are getting very hard to answer. In a former time a dogmatic answer was ready waiting for every fundamental question. You asked the question, but before you asked it you knew the answer, and so there was no argument and nearly no anxiety. In that former time a mere2 child could glance at your conduct and tell you with certainty exactly what you would be doing and how you would be feeling ten thousand years hence, if you persisted in the said conduct. But knowledge has advanced since then, and the inconvenience of increased knowledge is that it intensifies3 the sense of ignorance, with the result that, though we know immensely more than our grandfathers knew, we feel immensely more ignorant than they ever felt. They were, indeed, too ignorant to be aware of ignorance—which is perhaps a comfortable state. Thus the plain man nowadays shirks fundamental questions. And assuredly no member of the Society for the Suppression of Moral Indignation shall blame him.  
All fundamental questions resolve themselves finally into the following assertion and inquiry4 about life: “I am now engaged in something rather tiresome5. What do I stand to gain by it later on?” That is the basic query6. It has forms of varying importance. In its supreme7 form the word “eternity8” has to be employed. And the plain man is, to-day, so sensitive about this supreme form of the question that, far from asking and trying to answer it, he can scarcely bear to hear it even discussed—I mean discussed with candour. In practise a frank discussion of it usually tempts9 him to exhibitions of extraordinary heat and bitterness, and wisdom is thereby10 but obscured. Therefore he prefers the disadvantage of leaving it alone to the dissatisfaction of attempting to deal with it. The disadvantage of leaving it alone is obvious. Existence is, and must be, a compromise between the claims of the moment and the claims of the future—and how can that compromise be wisely established if one has not somehow made up one’s mind about the future? It cannot. But—I repeat—I would not blame the plain man. I would only just hint to him, while respecting his sensitiveness, that the present hour is just as much a part of eternity as another hour ten thousand years off.
The second—the most important—form of the fundamental question embraces the problem of old age. All plain men will admit, when faithfully cross-examined, a sort of belief that they are on their way to some Timbuctoo situate in the region of old age. It may be the Timbuctoo of a special ambition realized, or the Timbuctoo of luxury, or the Timbuctoo of material security, or the Timbuctoo of hale health, or the Timbuctoo of knowledge, or the Timbuctoo of power, or even the Timbuctoo of a good conscience. It is anyhow a recognizable and definable Timbuctoo. And the path leading to it is a straight, wide thoroughfare, clearly visible for a long distance ahead.
The theory of the mortal journey is simple and seldom challenged. It is a twofold theory—first that the delight of achievement will compensate11 for the rigours and self-denials of the route, and second that the misery12 of non-achievement would outweigh13 the immediate14 pleasures of dallying15. If this theory were not indestructible, for reasons connected with the secret nature of humanity, it would probably have been destroyed long ago by the mere cumulative16 battering17 of experience. For the earth’s surface is everywhere thickly dotted with old men who have achieved ambition, old men drenched18 in luxury, old men as safe as Mont Blanc from overthrow19, old men with the health of camels, old men who know more than anybody ever knew before, old men whose nod can ruin a thousand miles of railroad, and old men with consciences of pure snow; but who are not happy and cannot enjoy life.
The theory, however, does happen to be indestructible, partly because old age is such a terrible long way off, partly because the young honestly believe themselves to have a monopoly of wisdom, partly because every plain man is convinced that his case will be different from all the other cases, and chiefly because endeavour—not any particular endeavour, but rather any endeavour!—is a habit that corresponds to a very profound instinct in the plain man. So the reputation of Timbuctoo as a pleasure resort remains20 entirely21 unimpaired, and the pilgrimages continue with unabated earnestness.
And there is another and a paramount22 reason why the pilgrimages should continue. The two men in the parable both said that they just had to start—and they were right. We have to start, and, once started, we have to keep going. We must go somewhere. And at the moment of starting we have neither the sagacity nor the leisure to invent fresh places to start for, or to cut new paths. Everybody is going to Timbuctoo; the roads are well marked. And the plain man, with his honour of being peculiar23, sets out for Timbuctoo also, following the signposts. The fear of not arriving keeps him on the trot24, the fear of the unknown keeps him in the middle of the road and out of the forest on either side of it, and hope keeps up his courage.
Will any member of the Society for the Suppression of Moral Indignation step forward and heatedly charge the plain man with culpable25 foolishness, ignorance, or gullibility26; or even with cowardice27 in neglecting to find a convincing answer to the fundamental question about the other end of his life?

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