"It Is Better To Be A Fool Than To Be Dead"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Stevenson begins the essay entitled "Crabbed Age and Youth" by suggesting that proverbs are invented for mediocre people, to discourage them from overly ambitious attempts and to console them in their mediocrity. He notes that though they are discredited in practice, proverbs hold their own in theory. They are, he suggests, a fine example of how allowances are made for the illusions of youth, but none for the disenchantment of age; seldom do the young quote proverbs to the older generation; it is the older generation who quote proverbs for the edification of youth. Stevenson says that youth should be given credit for what it is, for having enthusiasm; one cannot, he implies, be worth while without having been a youth, with all the faults of youth. Youth, he says, needs to be considered carefully, just as are experience and maturity. He writes pointedly, "It is as natural and as right for a young man to be imprudent and exaggerated, to live in swoops and circles, and beat about his cage like any other wild thing newly captured, as it is for old men to turn gray. . . ." Stevenson is thus making a case for each age to be true to itself, and to live as is natural to it:

. . . All error, not merely verbal, is a strong way of saying that the current truth is incomplete. The follies of youth have a basis in sound reason, just as much as the embarrassing questions put by babes and sucklings. Their most antisocial acts indicate the defects of our society. When the torrent sweeps the man against a boulder, you must expect him to scream, and you need not be surprised if the scream is sometimes a theory. . . . Generous lads irritated at the injustices of society, see nothing for it but the abolishment of everything and Kingdom Come of anarchy. Shelley was a young fool; so are these cocksparrow revolutionaries. But it is better to be a fool than to be dead. It is better to emit a scream in the shape of a theory than to be entirely insensible to the jars and incongruities of life and take everything as it comes in a forlorn stupidity. . . .