Part 1 out of 4
Gilbert K. Chesterton
"To My Father"
Heretics was copyrighted in 1905 by the John Lane Company.
This electronic text is derived from the twelth (1919) edition
published by the John Lane Company of New York City and printed
by the Plimpton Press of Norwood, Massachusetts. The text carefully
follows that of the published edition (including British spelling).
Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in London, England on the 29th
of May, 1874. Though he considered himself a mere "rollicking journalist,"
he was actually a prolific and gifted writer in virtually every area
of literature. A man of strong opinions and enormously talented
at defending them, his exuberant personality nevertheless allowed
him to maintain warm friendships with people--such as George Bernard
Shaw and H. G. Wells--with whom he vehemently disagreed.
Chesterton had no difficulty standing up for what he believed.
He was one of the few journalists to oppose the Boer War.
His 1922 "Eugenics and Other Evils" attacked what was at that time
the most progressive of all ideas, the idea that the human
race could and should breed a superior version of itself.
In the Nazi experience, history demonstrated the wisdom of his
once "reactionary" views.
His poetry runs the gamut from the comic 1908 "On Running After
One's Hat" to dark and serious ballads. During the dark days of 1940,
when Britain stood virtually alone against the armed might of
Nazi Germany, these lines from his 1911 Ballad of the White Horse
were often quoted:
I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
Though not written for a scholarly audience, his biographies of
authors and historical figures like Charles Dickens and St. Francis
of Assisi often contain brilliant insights into their subjects.
His Father Brown mystery stories, written between 1911 and 1936,
are still being read and adapted for television.
His politics fitted with his deep distrust of concentrated wealth
and power of any sort. Along with his friend Hilaire Belloc and in
books like the 1910 "What's Wrong with the World" he advocated a view
called "Distributionism" that was best summed up by his expression
that every man ought to be allowed to own "three acres and a cow."
Though not know as a political thinker, his political influence
has circled the world. Some see in him the father of the "small
is beautiful" movement and a newspaper article by him is credited
with provoking Gandhi to seek a "genuine" nationalism for India
rather than one that imitated the British.
Heretics belongs to yet another area of literature at which
Chesterton excelled. A fun-loving and gregarious man, he was nevertheless
troubled in his adolescence by thoughts of suicide. In Christianity
he found the answers to the dilemmas and paradoxes he saw in life.
Other books in that same series include his 1908 Orthodoxy (written in
response to attacks on this book) and his 1925 The Everlasting Man.
Orthodoxy is also available as electronic text.
Chesterton died on the 14th of June, 1936 in Beaconsfield,
Buckinghamshire, England. During his life he published 69 books
and at least another ten based on his writings have been published
after his death. Many of those books are still in print.
Ignatius Press is systematically publishing his collected writings.
Table of Contents
1. Introductory Remarks on the Importance of Othodoxy
2. On the Negative Spirit
3. On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small
4. Mr. Bernard Shaw
5. Mr. H. G. Wells and the Giants
6. Christmas and the Esthetes
7. Omar and the Sacred Vine
8. The Mildness of the Yellow Press
9. The Moods of Mr. George Moore
10. On Sandals and Simplicity
11. Science and the Savages
12. Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson
13. Celts and Celtophiles
14. On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family
15. On Smart Novelists and the Smart Set
16. On Mr. McCabe and a Divine Frivolity
17. On the Wit of Whistler
18. The Fallacy of the Young Nation
19. Slum Novelists and the Slums
20. Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy
I. Introductory Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy
Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil
of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made
nowadays of the word "orthodox." In former days the heretic
was proud of not being a heretic. It was the kingdoms of
the world and the police and the judges who were heretics.
He was orthodox. He had no pride in having rebelled against them;
they had rebelled against him. The armies with their cruel security,
the kings with their cold faces, the decorous processes of State,
the reasonable processes of law--all these like sheep had gone astray.
The man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right.
If he stood alone in a howling wilderness he was more than a man;
he was a church. He was the centre of the universe; it was
round him that the stars swung. All the tortures torn out of
forgotten hells could not make him admit that he was heretical.
But a few modern phrases have made him boast of it. He says,
with a conscious laugh, "I suppose I am very heretical," and looks
round for applause. The word "heresy" not only means no longer
being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous.
The word "orthodoxy" not only no longer means being right;
it practically means being wrong. All this can mean one thing,
and one thing only. It means that people care less for whether
they are philosophically right. For obviously a man ought
to confess himself crazy before he confesses himself heretical.
The Bohemian, with a red tie, ought to pique himself on his orthodoxy.
The dynamiter, laying a bomb, ought to feel that, whatever else he is,
at least he is orthodox.
It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire
to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree
in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently
in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether
in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more
absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy.
This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter,
and this is done universally in the twentieth century,
in the decadence of the great revolutionary period.
General theories are everywhere contemned; the doctrine of the Rights
of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fall of Man.
Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day. Revolution itself
is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint.
We will have no generalizations. Mr. Bernard Shaw has put the view
in a perfect epigram: "The golden rule is that there is no golden rule."
We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature.
A man's opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters;
his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and
explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object,
the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost.
Everything matters--except everything.
Examples are scarcely needed of this total levity on the subject
of cosmic philosophy. Examples are scarcely needed to show that,
whatever else we think of as affecting practical affairs, we do
not think it matters whether a man is a pessimist or an optimist,
a Cartesian or a Hegelian, a materialist or a spiritualist.
Let me, however, take a random instance. At any innocent tea-table
we may easily hear a man say, "Life is not worth living."
We regard it as we regard the statement that it is a fine day;
nobody thinks that it can possibly have any serious effect on the man
or on the world. And yet if that utterance were really believed,
the world would stand on its head. Murderers would be given
medals for saving men from life; firemen would be denounced
for keeping men from death; poisons would be used as medicines;
doctors would be called in when people were well; the Royal
Humane Society would be rooted out like a horde of assassins.
Yet we never speculate as to whether the conversational pessimist
will strengthen or disorganize society; for we are convinced
that theories do not matter.
This was certainly not the idea of those who introduced our freedom.
When the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies, their idea
was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made.
Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that every one
ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic
truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what any one says.
The former freed inquiry as men loose a noble hound; the latter frees
inquiry as men fling back into the sea a fish unfit for eating.
Never has there been so little discussion about the nature of men
as now, when, for the first time, any one can discuss it. The old
restriction meant that only the orthodox were allowed to discuss religion.
Modern liberty means that nobody is allowed to discuss it.
Good taste, the last and vilest of human superstitions,
has succeeded in silencing us where all the rest have failed.
Sixty years ago it was bad taste to be an avowed atheist.
Then came the Bradlaughites, the last religious men, the last men
who cared about God; but they could not alter it. It is still bad
taste to be an avowed atheist. But their agony has achieved just this--
that now it is equally bad taste to be an avowed Christian.
Emancipation has only locked the saint in the same tower of silence
as the heresiarch. Then we talk about Lord Anglesey and the weather,
and call it the complete liberty of all the creeds.
But there are some people, nevertheless--and I am one of them--
who think that the most practical and important thing about a man
is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady
considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still
more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general
about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy's numbers,
but still more important to know the enemy's philosophy.
We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos
affects matters, but whether in the long run, anything else affects them.
In the fifteenth century men cross-examined and tormented a man
because he preached some immoral attitude; in the nineteenth century we
feted and flattered Oscar Wilde because he preached such an attitude,
and then broke his heart in penal servitude because he carried it out.
It may be a question which of the two methods was the more cruel;
there can be no kind of question which was the more ludicrous.
The age of the Inquisition has not at least the disgrace of having
produced a society which made an idol of the very same man for preaching
the very same things which it made him a convict for practising.
Now, in our time, philosophy or religion, our theory, that is,
about ultimate things, has been driven out, more or less simultaneously,
from two fields which it used to occupy. General ideals used
to dominate literature. They have been driven out by the cry
of "art for art's sake." General ideals used to dominate politics.
They have been driven out by the cry of "efficiency," which
may roughly be translated as "politics for politics' sake."
Persistently for the last twenty years the ideals of order or liberty
have dwindled in our books; the ambitions of wit and eloquence
have dwindled in our parliaments. Literature has purposely become
less political; politics have purposely become less literary.
General theories of the relation of things have thus been extruded
from both; and we are in a position to ask, "What have we gained
or lost by this extrusion? Is literature better, is politics better,
for having discarded the moralist and the philosopher?"
When everything about a people is for the time growing weak
and ineffective, it begins to talk about efficiency. So it is that when a
man's body is a wreck he begins, for the first time, to talk about health.
Vigorous organisms talk not about their processes, but about their aims.
There cannot be any better proof of the physical efficiency of a man
than that he talks cheerfully of a journey to the end of the world.
And there cannot be any better proof of the practical efficiency
of a nation than that it talks constantly of a journey to the end
of the world, a journey to the Judgment Day and the New Jerusalem.
There can be no stronger sign of a coarse material health
than the tendency to run after high and wild ideals; it is
in the first exuberance of infancy that we cry for the moon.
None of the strong men in the strong ages would have understood
what you meant by working for efficiency. Hildebrand would have said
that he was working not for efficiency, but for the Catholic Church.
Danton would have said that he was working not for efficiency,
but for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Even if the ideal
of such men were simply the ideal of kicking a man downstairs,
they thought of the end like men, not of the process like paralytics.
They did not say, "Efficiently elevating my right leg, using,
you will notice, the muscles of the thigh and calf, which are
in excellent order, I--" Their feeling was quite different.
They were so filled with the beautiful vision of the man lying
flat at the foot of the staircase that in that ecstasy the rest
followed in a flash. In practice, the habit of generalizing
and idealizing did not by any means mean worldly weakness.
The time of big theories was the time of big results. In the era of
sentiment and fine words, at the end of the eighteenth century, men were
really robust and effective. The sentimentalists conquered Napoleon.
The cynics could not catch De Wet. A hundred years ago our affairs
for good or evil were wielded triumphantly by rhetoricians.
Now our affairs are hopelessly muddled by strong, silent men.
And just as this repudiation of big words and big visions has
brought forth a race of small men in politics, so it has brought
forth a race of small men in the arts. Our modern politicians claim
the colossal license of Caesar and the Superman, claim that they are
too practical to be pure and too patriotic to be moral; but the upshot
of it all is that a mediocrity is Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Our new artistic philosophers call for the same moral license,
for a freedom to wreck heaven and earth with their energy;
but the upshot of it all is that a mediocrity is Poet Laureate.
I do not say that there are no stronger men than these; but will
any one say that there are any men stronger than those men of old
who were dominated by their philosophy and steeped in their religion?
Whether bondage be better than freedom may be discussed.
But that their bondage came to more than our freedom it will be
difficult for any one to deny.
The theory of the unmorality of art has established itself firmly
in the strictly artistic classes. They are free to produce
anything they like. They are free to write a "Paradise Lost"
in which Satan shall conquer God. They are free to write a
"Divine Comedy" in which heaven shall be under the floor of hell.
And what have they done? Have they produced in their universality
anything grander or more beautiful than the things uttered by
the fierce Ghibbeline Catholic, by the rigid Puritan schoolmaster?
We know that they have produced only a few roundels.
Milton does not merely beat them at his piety, he beats them
at their own irreverence. In all their little books of verse you
will not find a finer defiance of God than Satan's. Nor will you
find the grandeur of paganism felt as that fiery Christian felt it
who described Faranata lifting his head as in disdain of hell.
And the reason is very obvious. Blasphemy is an artistic effect,
because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction.
Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it.
If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think
blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him
at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.
Neither in the world of politics nor that of literature, then,
has the rejection of general theories proved a success.
It may be that there have been many moonstruck and misleading ideals
that have from time to time perplexed mankind. But assuredly
there has been no ideal in practice so moonstruck and misleading
as the ideal of practicality. Nothing has lost so many opportunities
as the opportunism of Lord Rosebery. He is, indeed, a standing
symbol of this epoch--the man who is theoretically a practical man,
and practically more unpractical than any theorist. Nothing in this
universe is so unwise as that kind of worship of worldly wisdom.
A man who is perpetually thinking of whether this race or that race
is strong, of whether this cause or that cause is promising, is the man
who will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed.
The opportunist politician is like a man who should abandon billiards
because he was beaten at billiards, and abandon golf because he was
beaten at golf. There is nothing which is so weak for working
purposes as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory.
There is nothing that fails like success.
And having discovered that opportunism does fail, I have been induced
to look at it more largely, and in consequence to see that it must fail.
I perceive that it is far more practical to begin at the beginning
and discuss theories. I see that the men who killed each other
about the orthodoxy of the Homoousion were far more sensible
than the people who are quarrelling about the Education Act.
For the Christian dogmatists were trying to establish a reign of holiness,
and trying to get defined, first of all, what was really holy.
But our modern educationists are trying to bring about a religious
liberty without attempting to settle what is religion or what
is liberty. If the old priests forced a statement on mankind,
at least they previously took some trouble to make it lucid.
It has been left for the modern mobs of Anglicans and Nonconformists
to persecute for a doctrine without even stating it.
For these reasons, and for many more, I for one have come
to believe in going back to fundamentals. Such is the general
idea of this book. I wish to deal with my most distinguished
contemporaries, not personally or in a merely literary manner,
but in relation to the real body of doctrine which they teach.
I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist
or a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic--
that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood
to differ from mine. I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw
as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive;
I am concerned with him as a Heretic--that is to say, a man whose
philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.
I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century,
inspired by the general hope of getting something done.
Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something,
let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to
pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages,
is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner
of the Schoolmen, "Let us first of all consider, my brethren,
the value of Light. If Light be in itself good--" At this point
he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush
for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go
about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality.
But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people
have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light;
some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness,
because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a
lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash
municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something.
And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes.
So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day,
there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all,
and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light.
Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must
discuss in the dark.
II. On the negative spirit
Much has been said, and said truly, of the monkish morbidity,
of the hysteria which as often gone with the visions of hermits or nuns.
But let us never forget that this visionary religion is, in one sense,
necessarily more wholesome than our modern and reasonable morality.
It is more wholesome for this reason, that it can contemplate the idea
of success or triumph in the hopeless fight towards the ethical ideal,
in what Stevenson called, with his usual startling felicity,
"the lost fight of virtue." A modern morality, on the other hand,
can only point with absolute conviction to the horrors that follow
breaches of law; its only certainty is a certainty of ill.
It can only point to imperfection. It has no perfection to point to.
But the monk meditating upon Christ or Buddha has in his mind
an image of perfect health, a thing of clear colours and clean air.
He may contemplate this ideal wholeness and happiness far more than he ought;
he may contemplate it to the neglect of exclusion of essential THINGS
he may contemplate it until he has become a dreamer or a driveller;
but still it is wholeness and happiness that he is contemplating.
He may even go mad; but he is going mad for the love of sanity.
But the modern student of ethics, even if he remains sane, remains sane
from an insane dread of insanity.
The anchorite rolling on the stones in a frenzy of submission
is a healthier person fundamentally than many a sober man
in a silk hat who is walking down Cheapside. For many
such are good only through a withering knowledge of evil.
I am not at this moment claiming for the devotee anything
more than this primary advantage, that though he may be making
himself personally weak and miserable, he is still fixing
his thoughts largely on gigantic strength and happiness,
on a strength that has no limits, and a happiness that has no end.
Doubtless there are other objections which can be urged without
unreason against the influence of gods and visions in morality,
whether in the cell or street. But this advantage the mystic
morality must always have--it is always jollier. A young man
may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease.
He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of
the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is
the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient.
But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome.
I remember a pamphlet by that able and sincere secularist,
Mr. G. W. Foote, which contained a phrase sharply symbolizing and
dividing these two methods. The pamphlet was called BEER AND BIBLE,
those two very noble things, all the nobler for a conjunction which
Mr. Foote, in his stern old Puritan way, seemed to think sardonic,
but which I confess to thinking appropriate and charming.
I have not the work by me, but I remember that Mr. Foote dismissed
very contemptuously any attempts to deal with the problem
of strong drink by religious offices or intercessions, and said
that a picture of a drunkard's liver would be more efficacious
in the matter of temperance than any prayer or praise.
In that picturesque expression, it seems to me, is perfectly
embodied the incurable morbidity of modern ethics.
In that temple the lights are low, the crowds kneel, the solemn
anthems are uplifted. But that upon the altar to which all men
kneel is no longer the perfect flesh, the body and substance
of the perfect man; it is still flesh, but it is diseased.
It is the drunkard's liver of the New Testament that is marred
for us, which which we take in remembrance of him.
Now, it is this great gap in modern ethics, the absence of vivid
pictures of purity and spiritual triumph, which lies at the back
of the real objection felt by so many sane men to the realistic
literature of the nineteenth century. If any ordinary man ever
said that he was horrified by the subjects discussed in Ibsen
or Maupassant, or by the plain language in which they are spoken of,
that ordinary man was lying. The average conversation of average
men throughout the whole of modern civilization in every class
or trade is such as Zola would never dream of printing.
Nor is the habit of writing thus of these things a new habit.
On the contrary, it is the Victorian prudery and silence which is
new still, though it is already dying. The tradition of calling
a spade a spade starts very early in our literature and comes
down very late. But the truth is that the ordinary honest man,
whatever vague account he may have given of his feelings, was not
either disgusted or even annoyed at the candour of the moderns.
What disgusted him, and very justly, was not the presence
of a clear realism, but the absence of a clear idealism.
Strong and genuine religious sentiment has never had any objection
to realism; on the contrary, religion was the realistic thing,
the brutal thing, the thing that called names. This is the great
difference between some recent developments of Nonconformity and
the great Puritanism of the seventeenth century. It was the whole
point of the Puritans that they cared nothing for decency.
Modern Nonconformist newspapers distinguish themselves by suppressing
precisely those nouns and adjectives which the founders of Nonconformity
distinguished themselves by flinging at kings and queens.
But if it was a chief claim of religion that it spoke plainly about evil,
it was the chief claim of all that it spoke plainly about good.
The thing which is resented, and, as I think, rightly resented,
in that great modern literature of which Ibsen is typical,
is that while the eye that can perceive what are the wrong things
increases in an uncanny and devouring clarity, the eye which sees
what things are right is growing mistier and mistier every moment,
till it goes almost blind with doubt. If we compare, let us say,
the morality of the DIVINE COMEDY with the morality of Ibsen's GHOSTS,
we shall see all that modern ethics have really done.
No one, I imagine, will accuse the author of the INFERNO
of an Early Victorian prudishness or a Podsnapian optimism.
But Dante describes three moral instruments--Heaven, Purgatory,
and Hell, the vision of perfection, the vision of improvement,
and the vision of failure. Ibsen has only one--Hell.
It is often said, and with perfect truth, that no one could read
a play like GHOSTS and remain indifferent to the necessity of an
ethical self-command. That is quite true, and the same is to be said
of the most monstrous and material descriptions of the eternal fire.
It is quite certain the realists like Zola do in one sense promote
morality--they promote it in the sense in which the hangman
promotes it, in the sense in which the devil promotes it.
But they only affect that small minority which will accept
any virtue of courage. Most healthy people dismiss these moral
dangers as they dismiss the possibility of bombs or microbes.
Modern realists are indeed Terrorists, like the dynamiters;
and they fail just as much in their effort to create a thrill.
Both realists and dynamiters are well-meaning people engaged
in the task, so obviously ultimately hopeless, of using science
to promote morality.
I do not wish the reader to confuse me for a moment with those vague
persons who imagine that Ibsen is what they call a pessimist.
There are plenty of wholesome people in Ibsen, plenty of
good people, plenty of happy people, plenty of examples of men
acting wisely and things ending well. That is not my meaning.
My meaning is that Ibsen has throughout, and does not disguise,
a certain vagueness and a changing attitude as well as a doubting
attitude towards what is really wisdom and virtue in this life--
a vagueness which contrasts very remarkably with the decisiveness
with which he pounces on something which he perceives to be a root
of evil, some convention, some deception, some ignorance.
We know that the hero of GHOSTS is mad, and we know why he is mad.
We do also know that Dr. Stockman is sane; but we do not know
why he is sane. Ibsen does not profess to know how virtue
and happiness are brought about, in the sense that he professes
to know how our modern sexual tragedies are brought about.
Falsehood works ruin in THE PILLARS OF SOCIETY, but truth works equal
ruin in THE WILD DUCK. There are no cardinal virtues of Ibsenism.
There is no ideal man of Ibsen. All this is not only admitted,
but vaunted in the most valuable and thoughtful of all the eulogies
upon Ibsen, Mr. Bernard Shaw's QUINTESSENCE OF IBSENISM.
Mr. Shaw sums up Ibsen's teaching in the phrase, "The golden
rule is that there is no golden rule." In his eyes this
absence of an enduring and positive ideal, this absence
of a permanent key to virtue, is the one great Ibsen merit.
I am not discussing now with any fullness whether this is so or not.
All I venture to point out, with an increased firmness,
is that this omission, good or bad, does leave us face to face
with the problem of a human consciousness filled with very
definite images of evil, and with no definite image of good.
To us light must be henceforward the dark thing--the thing of which
we cannot speak. To us, as to Milton's devils in Pandemonium,
it is darkness that is visible. The human race, according to religion,
fell once, and in falling gained knowledge of good and of evil.
Now we have fallen a second time, and only the knowledge of evil
remains to us.
A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment,
has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization. All previous
ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize
what is really the right life, what was really the good man.
A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question
to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions,
that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards
at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance,
against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere
existence of their neighbours. Ibsen is the first to return
from the baffled hunt to bring us the tidings of great failure.
Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is
a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good.
We are fond of talking about "liberty"; that, as we talk of it,
is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking
about "progress"; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.
We are fond of talking about "education"; that is a dodge
to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, "Let us
leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty."
This is, logically rendered, "Let us not decide what is good,
but let it be considered good not to decide it." He says,
"Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress."
This, logically stated, means, "Let us not settle what is good;
but let us settle whether we are getting more of it."
He says, "Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes
of the race, but in education." This, clearly expressed,
means, "We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it
to our children."
Mr. H.G. Wells, that exceedingly clear-sighted man, has pointed out in a
recent work that this has happened in connection with economic questions.
The old economists, he says, made generalizations, and they were
(in Mr. Wells's view) mostly wrong. But the new economists, he says,
seem to have lost the power of making any generalizations at all.
And they cover this incapacity with a general claim to be, in specific cases,
regarded as "experts", a claim "proper enough in a hairdresser or a
fashionable physician, but indecent in a philosopher or a man of science."
But in spite of the refreshing rationality with which Mr. Wells has
indicated this, it must also be said that he himself has fallen
into the same enormous modern error. In the opening pages of that
excellent book MANKIND IN THE MAKING, he dismisses the ideals of art,
religion, abstract morality, and the rest, and says that he is going
to consider men in their chief function, the function of parenthood.
He is going to discuss life as a "tissue of births." He is not going
to ask what will produce satisfactory saints or satisfactory heroes,
but what will produce satisfactory fathers and mothers. The whole is set
forward so sensibly that it is a few moments at least before the reader
realises that it is another example of unconscious shirking. What is the good
of begetting a man until we have settled what is the good of being a man?
You are merely handing on to him a problem you dare not settle yourself.
It is as if a man were asked, "What is the use of a hammer?" and answered,
"To make hammers"; and when asked, "And of those hammers, what is
the use?" answered, "To make hammers again". Just as such a man would
be perpetually putting off the question of the ultimate use of carpentry,
so Mr. Wells and all the rest of us are by these phrases successfully
putting off the question of the ultimate value of the human life.
The case of the general talk of "progress" is, indeed,
an extreme one. As enunciated today, "progress" is simply
a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.
We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty, or brute
pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress--that is to say,
we meet every proposal of getting something that we know about,
with an alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody
knows what. Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most
dignified and legitimate meaning. But as used in opposition
to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous. So far from it being
the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that
of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth.
Nobody has any business to use the word "progress" unless
he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals.
Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost
say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible
--at any rate, without believing in some infallibility.
For progress by its very name indicates a direction;
and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction,
we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress.
Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been
an age that had less right to use the word "progress" than we.
In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth
century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one,
men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in
what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree,
and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress.
But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree.
Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law,
in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally
concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach
its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full
animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy,
or spare nobody with Nietzsche;--these are the things about which we
are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that the age
which has settled least what is progress is this "progressive" age.
It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least
what is progress are the most "progressive" people in it.
The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress,
might be trusted perhaps to progress. The particular individuals
who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four
winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race.
I do not, therefore, say that the word "progress" is unmeaning; I say
it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine,
and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold
that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word,
but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us.
It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used
by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.
III. On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small
There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject;
the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.
Nothing is more keenly required than a defence of bores.
When Byron divided humanity into the bores and bored, he omitted
to notice that the higher qualities exist entirely in the bores,
the lower qualities in the bored, among whom he counted himself.
The bore, by his starry enthusiasm, his solemn happiness, may,
in some sense, have proved himself poetical. The bored has certainly
proved himself prosaic.
We might, no doubt, find it a nuisance to count all the blades of grass
or all the leaves of the trees; but this would not be because of our
boldness or gaiety, but because of our lack of boldness and gaiety.
The bore would go onward, bold and gay, and find the blades of
grass as splendid as the swords of an army. The bore is stronger
and more joyous than we are; he is a demigod--nay, he is a god.
For it is the gods who do not tire of the iteration of things;
to them the nightfall is always new, and the last rose as red
as the first.
The sense that everything is poetical is a thing solid and absolute;
it is not a mere matter of phraseology or persuasion. It is not
merely true, it is ascertainable. Men may be challenged to deny it;
men may be challenged to mention anything that is not a matter of poetry.
I remember a long time ago a sensible sub-editor coming up to me
with a book in his hand, called "Mr. Smith," or "The Smith Family,"
or some such thing. He said, "Well, you won't get any of your damned
mysticism out of this," or words to that effect. I am happy to say
that I undeceived him; but the victory was too obvious and easy.
In most cases the name is unpoetical, although the fact is poetical.
In the case of Smith, the name is so poetical that it must
be an arduous and heroic matter for the man to live up to it.
The name of Smith is the name of the one trade that even kings respected,
it could claim half the glory of that arma virumque which all
epics acclaimed. The spirit of the smithy is so close to the spirit
of song that it has mixed in a million poems, and every blacksmith
is a harmonious blacksmith.
Even the village children feel that in some dim way the smith
is poetic, as the grocer and the cobbler are not poetic,
when they feast on the dancing sparks and deafening blows in
the cavern of that creative violence. The brute repose of Nature,
the passionate cunning of man, the strongest of earthly metals,
the wierdest of earthly elements, the unconquerable iron subdued
by its only conqueror, the wheel and the ploughshare, the sword and
the steam-hammer, the arraying of armies and the whole legend of arms,
all these things are written, briefly indeed, but quite legibly,
on the visiting-card of Mr. Smith. Yet our novelists call their
hero "Aylmer Valence," which means nothing, or "Vernon Raymond,"
which means nothing, when it is in their power to give him
this sacred name of Smith--this name made of iron and flame.
It would be very natural if a certain hauteur, a certain carriage
of the head, a certain curl of the lip, distinguished every
one whose name is Smith. Perhaps it does; I trust so.
Whoever else are parvenus, the Smiths are not parvenus.
From the darkest dawn of history this clan has gone forth to battle;
its trophies are on every hand; its name is everywhere;
it is older than the nations, and its sign is the Hammer of Thor.
But as I also remarked, it is not quite the usual case.
It is common enough that common things should be poetical;
it is not so common that common names should be poetical.
In most cases it is the name that is the obstacle.
A great many people talk as if this claim of ours, that all things
are poetical, were a mere literary ingenuity, a play on words.
Precisely the contrary is true. It is the idea that some things are
not poetical which is literary, which is a mere product of words.
The word "signal-box" is unpoetical. But the thing signal-box is
not unpoetical; it is a place where men, in an agony of vigilance,
light blood-red and sea-green fires to keep other men from death.
That is the plain, genuine description of what it is; the prose only
comes in with what it is called. The word "pillar-box" is unpoetical.
But the thing pillar-box is not unpoetical; it is the place
to which friends and lovers commit their messages, conscious that
when they have done so they are sacred, and not to be touched,
not only by others, but even (religious touch!) by themselves.
That red turret is one of the last of the temples. Posting a letter and
getting married are among the few things left that are entirely romantic;
for to be entirely romantic a thing must be irrevocable.
We think a pillar-box prosaic, because there is no rhyme to it.
We think a pillar-box unpoetical, because we have never seen it
in a poem. But the bold fact is entirely on the side of poetry.
A signal-box is only called a signal-box; it is a house of life and death.
A pillar-box is only called a pillar-box; it is a sanctuary of
human words. If you think the name of "Smith" prosaic, it is not
because you are practical and sensible; it is because you are too much
affected with literary refinements. The name shouts poetry at you.
If you think of it otherwise, it is because you are steeped and
sodden with verbal reminiscences, because you remember everything
in Punch or Comic Cuts about Mr. Smith being drunk or Mr. Smith
being henpecked. All these things were given to you poetical.
It is only by a long and elaborate process of literary effort
that you have made them prosaic.
Now, the first and fairest thing to say about Rudyard Kipling
is that he has borne a brilliant part in thus recovering the lost
provinces of poetry. He has not been frightened by that brutal
materialistic air which clings only to words; he has pierced through
to the romantic, imaginative matter of the things themselves.
He has perceived the significance and philosophy of steam and of slang.
Steam may be, if you like, a dirty by-product of science.
Slang may be, if you like, a dirty by-product of language.
But at least he has been among the few who saw the divine parentage of
these things, and knew that where there is smoke there is fire--that is,
that wherever there is the foulest of things, there also is the purest.
Above all, he has had something to say, a definite view of things to utter,
and that always means that a man is fearless and faces everything.
For the moment we have a view of the universe, we possess it.
Now, the message of Rudyard Kipling, that upon which he has
really concentrated, is the only thing worth worrying about
in him or in any other man. He has often written bad poetry,
like Wordsworth. He has often said silly things, like Plato.
He has often given way to mere political hysteria, like Gladstone.
But no one can reasonably doubt that he means steadily and sincerely
to say something, and the only serious question is, What is that
which he has tried to say? Perhaps the best way of stating this
fairly will be to begin with that element which has been most insisted
by himself and by his opponents--I mean his interest in militarism.
But when we are seeking for the real merits of a man it is unwise
to go to his enemies, and much more foolish to go to himself.
Now, Mr. Kipling is certainly wrong in his worship of militarism,
but his opponents are, generally speaking, quite as wrong as he.
The evil of militarism is not that it shows certain men to be fierce
and haughty and excessively warlike. The evil of militarism is that it
shows most men to be tame and timid and excessively peaceable.
The professional soldier gains more and more power as the general
courage of a community declines. Thus the Pretorian guard became
more and more important in Rome as Rome became more and more
luxurious and feeble. The military man gains the civil power
in proportion as the civilian loses the military virtues.
And as it was in ancient Rome so it is in contemporary Europe.
There never was a time when nations were more militarist.
There never was a time when men were less brave. All ages and all epics
have sung of arms and the man; but we have effected simultaneously
the deterioration of the man and the fantastic perfection of the arms.
Militarism demonstrated the decadence of Rome, and it demonstrates
the decadence of Prussia.
And unconsciously Mr. Kipling has proved this, and proved it admirably.
For in so far as his work is earnestly understood the military trade
does not by any means emerge as the most important or attractive.
He has not written so well about soldiers as he has about
railway men or bridge builders, or even journalists.
The fact is that what attracts Mr. Kipling to militarism
is not the idea of courage, but the idea of discipline.
There was far more courage to the square mile in the Middle Ages,
when no king had a standing army, but every man had a bow or sword.
But the fascination of the standing army upon Mr. Kipling is
not courage, which scarcely interests him, but discipline, which is,
when all is said and done, his primary theme. The modern army
is not a miracle of courage; it has not enough opportunities,
owing to the cowardice of everybody else. But it is really
a miracle of organization, and that is the truly Kiplingite ideal.
Kipling's subject is not that valour which properly belongs to war,
but that interdependence and efficiency which belongs quite
as much to engineers, or sailors, or mules, or railway engines.
And thus it is that when he writes of engineers, or sailors,
or mules, or steam-engines, he writes at his best. The real poetry,
the "true romance" which Mr. Kipling has taught, is the romance
of the division of labour and the discipline of all the trades.
He sings the arts of peace much more accurately than the arts of war.
And his main contention is vital and valuable. Every thing is military
in the sense that everything depends upon obedience. There is no
perfectly epicurean corner; there is no perfectly irresponsible place.
Everywhere men have made the way for us with sweat and submission.
We may fling ourselves into a hammock in a fit of divine carelessness.
But we are glad that the net-maker did not make the hammock in a fit of
divine carelessness. We may jump upon a child's rocking-horse for a joke.
But we are glad that the carpenter did not leave the legs of it
unglued for a joke. So far from having merely preached that a soldier
cleaning his side-arm is to be adored because he is military,
Kipling at his best and clearest has preached that the baker baking
loaves and the tailor cutting coats is as military as anybody.
Being devoted to this multitudinous vision of duty, Mr. Kipling
is naturally a cosmopolitan. He happens to find his examples
in the British Empire, but almost any other empire would
do as well, or, indeed, any other highly civilized country.
That which he admires in the British army he would find even more
apparent in the German army; that which he desires in the British
police he would find flourishing, in the French police.
The ideal of discipline is not the whole of life, but it is spread
over the whole of the world. And the worship of it tends to confirm
in Mr. Kipling a certain note of worldly wisdom, of the experience
of the wanderer, which is one of the genuine charms of his best work.
The great gap in his mind is what may be roughly called the lack
of patriotism--that is to say, he lacks altogether the faculty of attaching
himself to any cause or community finally and tragically; for all
finality must be tragic. He admires England, but he does not love her;
for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons.
He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.
There is no harshness in saying this, for, to do him justice, he avows
it with his usual picturesque candour. In a very interesting poem,
he says that--
"If England was what England seems"
--that is, weak and inefficient; if England were not what (as he believes)
she is--that is, powerful and practical--
"How quick we'd chuck 'er! But she ain't!"
He admits, that is, that his devotion is the result of a criticism,
and this is quite enough to put it in another category altogether from
the patriotism of the Boers, whom he hounded down in South Africa.
In speaking of the really patriotic peoples, such as the Irish, he has
some difficulty in keeping a shrill irritation out of his language.
The frame of mind which he really describes with beauty and
nobility is the frame of mind of the cosmopolitan man who has seen
men and cities.
"For to admire and for to see,
For to be'old this world so wide."
He is a perfect master of that light melancholy with which a man
looks back on having been the citizen of many communities,
of that light melancholy with which a man looks back on having been
the lover of many women. He is the philanderer of the nations.
But a man may have learnt much about women in flirtations,
and still be ignorant of first love; a man may have known as many
lands as Ulysses, and still be ignorant of patriotism.
Mr. Rudyard Kipling has asked in a celebrated epigram what they can
know of England who know England only. It is a far deeper and sharper
question to ask, "What can they know of England who know only the world?"
for the world does not include England any more than it includes
the Church. The moment we care for anything deeply, the world--
that is, all the other miscellaneous interests--becomes our enemy.
Christians showed it when they talked of keeping one's self
"unspotted from the world;" but lovers talk of it just as much
when they talk of the "world well lost." Astronomically speaking,
I understand that England is situated on the world; similarly, I suppose
that the Church was a part of the world, and even the lovers
inhabitants of that orb. But they all felt a certain truth--
the truth that the moment you love anything the world becomes your foe.
Thus Mr. Kipling does certainly know the world; he is a man of the world,
with all the narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet.
He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice.
He has been to England a great many times; he has stopped there
for long visits. But he does not belong to it, or to any place;
and the proof of it is this, that he thinks of England as a place.
The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes.
We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe.
The globe-trotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant.
He is always breathing, an air of locality. London is a place, to be
compared to Chicago; Chicago is a place, to be compared to Timbuctoo.
But Timbuctoo is not a place, since there, at least, live men
who regard it as the universe, and breathe, not an air of locality,
but the winds of the world. The man in the saloon steamer has
seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that
divide men--diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa,
or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red
paint among the modern Britons. The man in the cabbage field has
seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men--
hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace
of the sky. Mr. Kipling, with all his merits, is the globe-trotter;
he has not the patience to become part of anything.
So great and genuine a man is not to be accused of a merely
cynical cosmopolitanism; still, his cosmopolitanism is his weakness.
That weakness is splendidly expressed in one of his finest poems,
"The Sestina of the Tramp Royal," in which a man declares that he can
endure anything in the way of hunger or horror, but not permanent
presence in one place. In this there is certainly danger.
The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about;
dust is like this and the thistle-down and the High Commissioner
in South Africa. Fertile things are somewhat heavier, like the heavy
fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile. In the heated idleness
of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel with the implication
of that proverb which says that a rolling stone gathers no moss. We were
inclined to ask, "Who wants to gather moss, except silly old ladies?"
But for all that we begin to perceive that the proverb is right.
The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling
stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.
The truth is that exploration and enlargement make the world smaller.
The telegraph and the steamboat make the world smaller.
The telescope makes the world smaller; it is only the microscope
that makes it larger. Before long the world will be cloven
with a war between the telescopists and the microscopists.
The first study large things and live in a small world; the second
study small things and live in a large world. It is inspiriting
without doubt to whizz in a motor-car round the earth, to feel Arabia
as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia
is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields. They
are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures.
If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers,
it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets.
To conquer these places is to lose them. The man standing
in his own kitchen-garden, with fairyland opening at the gate,
is the man with large ideas. His mind creates distance; the motor-car
stupidly destroys it. Moderns think of the earth as a globe,
as something one can easily get round, the spirit of a schoolmistress.
This is shown in the odd mistake perpetually made about Cecil Rhodes.
His enemies say that he may have had large ideas, but he was a bad man.
His friends say that he may have been a bad man, but he certainly
had large ideas. The truth is that he was not a man essentially bad,
he was a man of much geniality and many good intentions, but a man
with singularly small views. There is nothing large about painting
the map red; it is an innocent game for children. It is just as easy
to think in continents as to think in cobble-stones. The difficulty
comes in when we seek to know the substance of either of them.
Rhodes' prophecies about the Boer resistance are an admirable
comment on how the "large ideas" prosper when it is not a question
of thinking in continents but of understanding a few two-legged men.
And under all this vast illusion of the cosmopolitan planet,
with its empires and its Reuter's agency, the real life of man
goes on concerned with this tree or that temple, with this harvest
or that drinking-song, totally uncomprehended, totally untouched.
And it watches from its splendid parochialism, possibly with a smile
of amusement, motor-car civilization going its triumphant way,
outstripping time, consuming space, seeing all and seeing nothing,
roaring on at last to the capture of the solar system, only to find
the sun cockney and the stars suburban.
IV. Mr. Bernard Shaw
In the glad old days, before the rise of modern morbidities,
when genial old Ibsen filled the world with wholesome joy, and the
kindly tales of the forgotten Emile Zola kept our firesides merry
and pure, it used to be thought a disadvantage to be misunderstood.
It may be doubted whether it is always or even generally a disadvantage.
The man who is misunderstood has always this advantage over his enemies,
that they do not know his weak point or his plan of campaign.
They go out against a bird with nets and against a fish with arrows.
There are several modern examples of this situation. Mr. Chamberlain,
for instance, is a very good one. He constantly eludes or vanquishes
his opponents because his real powers and deficiencies are quite
different to those with which he is credited, both by friends and foes.
His friends depict him as a strenuous man of action; his opponents
depict him as a coarse man of business; when, as a fact, he is neither
one nor the other, but an admirable romantic orator and romantic actor.
He has one power which is the soul of melodrama--the power of pretending,
even when backed by a huge majority, that he has his back to the wall.
For all mobs are so far chivalrous that their heroes must make
some show of misfortune--that sort of hypocrisy is the homage
that strength pays to weakness. He talks foolishly and yet
very finely about his own city that has never deserted him.
He wears a flaming and fantastic flower, like a decadent minor poet.
As for his bluffness and toughness and appeals to common sense,
all that is, of course, simply the first trick of rhetoric.
He fronts his audiences with the venerable affectation of Mark Antony--
"I am no orator, as Brutus is;
But as you know me all, a plain blunt man."
It is the whole difference between the aim of the orator and
the aim of any other artist, such as the poet or the sculptor.
The aim of the sculptor is to convince us that he is a sculptor;
the aim of the orator, is to convince us that he is not an orator.
Once let Mr. Chamberlain be mistaken for a practical man, and his
game is won. He has only to compose a theme on empire, and people
will say that these plain men say great things on great occasions.
He has only to drift in the large loose notions common to all
artists of the second rank, and people will say that business
men have the biggest ideals after all. All his schemes have
ended in smoke; he has touched nothing that he did not confuse.
About his figure there is a Celtic pathos; like the Gaels in Matthew
Arnold's quotation, "he went forth to battle, but he always fell."
He is a mountain of proposals, a mountain of failures; but still
a mountain. And a mountain is always romantic.
There is another man in the modern world who might be called
the antithesis of Mr. Chamberlain in every point, who is also
a standing monument of the advantage of being misunderstood.
Mr. Bernard Shaw is always represented by those who disagree
with him, and, I fear, also (if such exist) by those who agree with him,
as a capering humorist, a dazzling acrobat, a quick-change artist.
It is said that he cannot be taken seriously, that he will defend anything
or attack anything, that he will do anything to startle and amuse.
All this is not only untrue, but it is, glaringly, the opposite of
the truth; it is as wild as to say that Dickens had not the boisterous
masculinity of Jane Austen. The whole force and triumph of Mr. Bernard
Shaw lie in the fact that he is a thoroughly consistent man.
So far from his power consisting in jumping through hoops or standing on
his head, his power consists in holding his own fortress night and day.
He puts the Shaw test rapidly and rigorously to everything
that happens in heaven or earth. His standard never varies.
The thing which weak-minded revolutionists and weak-minded Conservatives
really hate (and fear) in him, is exactly this, that his scales,
such as they are, are held even, and that his law, such as it is,
is justly enforced. You may attack his principles, as I do; but I
do not know of any instance in which you can attack their application.
If he dislikes lawlessness, he dislikes the lawlessness of Socialists
as much as that of Individualists. If he dislikes the fever of patriotism,
he dislikes it in Boers and Irishmen as well as in Englishmen.
If he dislikes the vows and bonds of marriage, he dislikes still
more the fiercer bonds and wilder vows that are made by lawless love.
If he laughs at the authority of priests, he laughs louder at the pomposity
of men of science. If he condemns the irresponsibility of faith,
he condemns with a sane consistency the equal irresponsibility of art.
He has pleased all the bohemians by saying that women are equal to men;
but he has infuriated them by suggesting that men are equal to women.
He is almost mechanically just; he has something of the terrible
quality of a machine. The man who is really wild and whirling,
the man who is really fantastic and incalculable, is not Mr. Shaw,
but the average Cabinet Minister. It is Sir Michael Hicks-Beach who
jumps through hoops. It is Sir Henry Fowler who stands on his head.
The solid and respectable statesman of that type does really
leap from position to position; he is really ready to defend
anything or nothing; he is really not to be taken seriously.
I know perfectly well what Mr. Bernard Shaw will be saying
thirty years hence; he will be saying what he has always said.
If thirty years hence I meet Mr. Shaw, a reverent being
with a silver beard sweeping the earth, and say to him,
"One can never, of course, make a verbal attack upon a lady,"
the patriarch will lift his aged hand and fell me to the earth.
We know, I say, what Mr. Shaw will be, saying thirty years hence.
But is there any one so darkly read in stars and oracles that he will
dare to predict what Mr. Asquith will be saying thirty years hence?
The truth is, that it is quite an error to suppose that absence
of definite convictions gives the mind freedom and agility.
A man who believes something is ready and witty, because he has
all his weapons about him. he can apply his test in an instant.
The man engaged in conflict with a man like Mr. Bernard Shaw may
fancy he has ten faces; similarly a man engaged against a brilliant
duellist may fancy that the sword of his foe has turned to ten swords
in his hand. But this is not really because the man is playing
with ten swords, it is because he is aiming very straight with one.
Moreover, a man with a definite belief always appears bizarre,
because he does not change with the world; he has climbed into
a fixed star, and the earth whizzes below him like a zoetrope.
Millions of mild black-coated men call themselves sane and sensible
merely because they always catch the fashionable insanity,
because they are hurried into madness after madness by the maelstrom
of the world.
People accuse Mr. Shaw and many much sillier persons of "proving that black
is white." But they never ask whether the current colour-language is
always correct. Ordinary sensible phraseology sometimes calls black white,
it certainly calls yellow white and green white and reddish-brown white.
We call wine "white wine" which is as yellow as a Blue-coat boy's legs.
We call grapes "white grapes" which are manifestly pale green.
We give to the European, whose complexion is a sort of pink drab,
the horrible title of a "white man"--a picture more blood-curdling
than any spectre in Poe.
Now, it is undoubtedly true that if a man asked a waiter in a restaurant
for a bottle of yellow wine and some greenish-yellow grapes, the waiter
would think him mad. It is undoubtedly true that if a Government official,
reporting on the Europeans in Burmah, said, "There are only two
thousand pinkish men here" he would be accused of cracking jokes,
and kicked out of his post. But it is equally obvious that both
men would have come to grief through telling the strict truth.
That too truthful man in the restaurant; that too truthful man
in Burmah, is Mr. Bernard Shaw. He appears eccentric and grotesque
because he will not accept the general belief that white is yellow.
He has based all his brilliancy and solidity upon the hackneyed,
but yet forgotten, fact that truth is stranger than fiction.
Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction,
for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.
So much then a reasonable appreciation will find in Mr. Shaw
to be bracing and excellent. He claims to see things as they are;
and some things, at any rate, he does see as they are,
which the whole of our civilization does not see at all.
But in Mr. Shaw's realism there is something lacking, and that thing
which is lacking is serious.
Mr. Shaw's old and recognized philosophy was that powerfully
presented in "The Quintessence of Ibsenism." It was, in brief,
that conservative ideals were bad, not because They were conservative,
but because they were ideals. Every ideal prevented men from judging
justly the particular case; every moral generalization oppressed
the individual; the golden rule was there was no golden rule.
And the objection to this is simply that it pretends to free men,
but really restrains them from doing the only thing that men want to do.
What is the good of telling a community that it has every liberty
except the liberty to make laws? The liberty to make laws is what
constitutes a free people. And what is the good of telling a man
(or a philosopher) that he has every liberty except the liberty to
make generalizations. Making generalizations is what makes him a man.
In short, when Mr. Shaw forbids men to have strict moral ideals,
he is acting like one who should forbid them to have children.
The saying that "the golden rule is that there is no golden rule,"
can, indeed, be simply answered by being turned round.
That there is no golden rule is itself a golden rule, or rather
it is much worse than a golden rule. It is an iron rule;
a fetter on the first movement of a man.
But the sensation connected with Mr. Shaw in recent years has
been his sudden development of the religion of the Superman.
He who had to all appearance mocked at the faiths in the forgotten
past discovered a new god in the unimaginable future. He who had laid
all the blame on ideals set up the most impossible of all ideals,
the ideal of a new creature. But the truth, nevertheless, is that any
one who knows Mr. Shaw's mind adequately, and admires it properly,
must have guessed all this long ago.
For the truth is that Mr. Shaw has never seen things as they really are.
If he had he would have fallen on his knees before them.
He has always had a secret ideal that has withered all the things
of this world. He has all the time been silently comparing humanity
with something that was not human, with a monster from Mars,
with the Wise Man of the Stoics, with the Economic Man of the Fabians,
with Julius Caesar, with Siegfried, with the Superman. Now, to have
this inner and merciless standard may be a very good thing,
or a very bad one, it may be excellent or unfortunate, but it
is not seeing things as they are. it is not seeing things as they
are to think first of a Briareus with a hundred hands, and then call
every man a cripple for only having two. It is not seeing things
as they are to start with a vision of Argus with his hundred eyes,
and then jeer at every man with two eyes as if he had only one.
And it is not seeing things as they are to imagine a demigod
of infinite mental clarity, who may or may not appear in the latter
days of the earth, and then to see all men as idiots. And this
is what Mr. Shaw has always in some degree done. When we really see
men as they are, we do not criticise, but worship; and very rightly.
For a monster with mysterious eyes and miraculous thumbs,
with strange dreams in his skull, and a queer tenderness for this
place or that baby, is truly a wonderful and unnerving matter.
It is only the quite arbitrary and priggish habit of comparison with
something else which makes it possible to be at our ease in front of him.
A sentiment of superiority keeps us cool and practical; the mere facts
would make, our knees knock under as with religious fear. It is the fact
that every instant of conscious life is an unimaginable prodigy.
It is the fact that every face in the street has the incredible
unexpectedness of a fairy-tale. The thing which prevents a man
from realizing this is not any clear-sightedness or experience,
it is simply a habit of pedantic and fastidious comparisons
between one thing and another. Mr. Shaw, on the practical side
perhaps the most humane man alive, is in this sense inhumane.
He has even been infected to some extent with the primary
intellectual weakness of his new master, Nietzsche, the strange
notion that the greater and stronger a man was the more he would
despise other things. The greater and stronger a man is the more
he would be inclined to prostrate himself before a periwinkle.
That Mr. Shaw keeps a lifted head and a contemptuous face before
the colossal panorama of empires and civilizations, this does
not in itself convince one that he sees things as they are.
I should be most effectively convinced that he did if I found
him staring with religious astonishment at his own feet.
"What are those two beautiful and industrious beings," I can imagine him
murmuring to himself, "whom I see everywhere, serving me I know not why?
What fairy godmother bade them come trotting out of elfland when I
was born? What god of the borderland, what barbaric god of legs,
must I propitiate with fire and wine, lest they run away with me?"
The truth is, that all genuine appreciation rests on a certain
mystery of humility and almost of darkness. The man who said,
"Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed,"
put the eulogy quite inadequately and even falsely. The truth "Blessed
is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised."
The man who expects nothing sees redder roses than common men can see,
and greener grass, and a more startling sun. Blessed is he that
expecteth nothing, for he shall possess the cities and the mountains;
blessed is the meek, for he shall inherit the earth. Until we
realize that things might not be we cannot realize that things are.
Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light
as a single and created thing. As soon as we have seen that darkness,
all light is lightening, sudden, blinding, and divine.
Until we picture nonentity we underrate the victory of God,
and can realize none of the trophies of His ancient war.
It is one of the million wild jests of truth that we know nothing
until we know nothing,
Now this is, I say deliberately, the only defect in the greatness
of Mr. Shaw, the only answer to his claim to be a great man,
that he is not easily pleased. He is an almost solitary exception to
the general and essential maxim, that little things please great minds.
And from this absence of that most uproarious of all things, humility,
comes incidentally the peculiar insistence on the Superman.
After belabouring a great many people for a great many years for
being unprogressive, Mr. Shaw has discovered, with characteristic sense,
that it is very doubtful whether any existing human being with two
legs can be progressive at all. Having come to doubt whether
humanity can be combined with progress, most people, easily pleased,
would have elected to abandon progress and remain with humanity.
Mr. Shaw, not being easily pleased, decides to throw over humanity
with all its limitations and go in for progress for its own sake.
If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress,
Mr. Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind
of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter
food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was
not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food,
but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby.
Mr. Shaw cannot understand that the thing which is valuable
and lovable in our eyes is man--the old beer-drinking,
creed-making, fighting, failing, sensual, respectable man.
And the things that have been founded on this creature immortally remain;
the things that have been founded on the fancy of the Superman have
died with the dying civilizations which alone have given them birth.
When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society,
He chose for its comer-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor
the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob a coward--in a word, a man.
And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell
have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms
have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness,
that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men.
But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded
on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible.
For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.
V. Mr. H. G. Wells and the Giants
We ought to see far enough into a hypocrite to see even his sincerity.
We ought to be interested in that darkest and most real part
of a man in which dwell not the vices that he does not display,
but the virtues that he cannot. And the more we approach the problems
of human history with this keen and piercing charity, the smaller
and smaller space we shall allow to pure hypocrisy of any kind.
The hypocrites shall not deceive us into thinking them saints;
but neither shall they deceive us into thinking them hypocrites.
And an increasing number of cases will crowd into our field of inquiry,
cases in which there is really no question of hypocrisy at all,
cases in which people were so ingenuous that they seemed absurd,
and so absurd that they seemed disingenuous.
There is one striking instance of an unfair charge of hypocrisy.
It is always urged against the religious in the past, as a point of
inconsistency and duplicity, that they combined a profession of almost
crawling humility with a keen struggle for earthly success and considerable
triumph in attaining it. It is felt as a piece of humbug, that a man
should be very punctilious in calling himself a miserable sinner,
and also very punctilious in calling himself King of France.
But the truth is that there is no more conscious inconsistency between
the humility of a Christian and the rapacity of a Christian than there
is between the humility of a lover and the rapacity of a lover.
The truth is that there are no things for which men will make such
herculean efforts as the things of which they know they are unworthy.
There never was a man in love who did not declare that, if he strained
every nerve to breaking, he was going to have his desire.
And there never was a man in love who did not declare also that he ought
not to have it. The whole secret of the practical success of Christendom
lies in the Christian humility, however imperfectly fulfilled.
For with the removal of all question of merit or payment, the soul
is suddenly released for incredible voyages. If we ask a sane man
how much he merits, his mind shrinks instinctively and instantaneously.
It is doubtful whether he merits six feet of earth.
But if you ask him what he can conquer--he can conquer the stars.
Thus comes the thing called Romance, a purely Christian product.
A man cannot deserve adventures; he cannot earn dragons and hippogriffs.
The mediaeval Europe which asserted humility gained Romance;
the civilization which gained Romance has gained the habitable globe.
How different the Pagan and Stoical feeling was from this has
been admirably expressed in a famous quotation. Addison makes
the great Stoic say--
"'Tis not in mortals to command success;
But we'll do more, Sempronius, we'll deserve it."
But the spirit of Romance and Christendom, the spirit which is in
every lover, the spirit which has bestridden the earth with European
adventure, is quite opposite. 'Tis not in mortals to deserve success.
But we'll do more, Sempronius; we'll obtain it.
And this gay humility, this holding of ourselves lightly and yet ready
for an infinity of unmerited triumphs, this secret is so simple that every
one has supposed that it must be something quite sinister and mysterious.
Humility is so practical a virtue that men think it must be a vice.
Humility is so successful that it is mistaken for pride.
It is mistaken for it all the more easily because it generally goes
with a certain simple love of splendour which amounts to vanity.
Humility will always, by preference, go clad in scarlet and gold;
pride is that which refuses to let gold and scarlet impress it or please
it too much. In a word, the failure of this virtue actually lies
in its success; it is too successful as an investment to be believed
in as a virtue. Humility is not merely too good for this world;
it is too practical for this world; I had almost said it is too
worldly for this world.
The instance most quoted in our day is the thing called the humility
of the man of science; and certainly it is a good instance as well
as a modern one. Men find it extremely difficult to believe
that a man who is obviously uprooting mountains and dividing seas,
tearing down temples and stretching out hands to the stars,
is really a quiet old gentleman who only asks to be allowed to
indulge his harmless old hobby and follow his harmless old nose.
When a man splits a grain of sand and the universe is turned upside down
in consequence, it is difficult to realize that to the man who did it,
the splitting of the grain is the great affair, and the capsizing
of the cosmos quite a small one. It is hard to enter into the feelings
of a man who regards a new heaven and a new earth in the light of a
by-product. But undoubtedly it was to this almost eerie innocence
of the intellect that the great men of the great scientific period,
which now appears to be closing, owed their enormous power and triumph.
If they had brought the heavens down like a house of cards
their plea was not even that they had done it on principle;
their quite unanswerable plea was that they had done it by accident.
Whenever there was in them the least touch of pride in what
they had done, there was a good ground for attacking them;
but so long as they were wholly humble, they were wholly victorious.
There were possible answers to Huxley; there was no answer possible
to Darwin. He was convincing because of his unconsciousness;
one might almost say because of his dulness. This childlike
and prosaic mind is beginning to wane in the world of science.
Men of science are beginning to see themselves, as the fine phrase is,
in the part; they are beginning to be proud of their humility.
They are beginning to be aesthetic, like the rest of the world,
beginning to spell truth with a capital T, beginning to talk
of the creeds they imagine themselves to have destroyed,
of the discoveries that their forbears made. Like the modern English,
they are beginning to be soft about their own hardness.
They are becoming conscious of their own strength--that is,
they are growing weaker. But one purely modern man has emerged
in the strictly modern decades who does carry into our world the clear
personal simplicity of the old world of science. One man of genius
we have who is an artist, but who was a man of science, and who seems
to be marked above all things with this great scientific humility.
I mean Mr. H. G. Wells. And in his case, as in the others above
spoken of, there must be a great preliminary difficulty in convincing
the ordinary person that such a virtue is predicable of such a man.
Mr. Wells began his literary work with violent visions--visions of
the last pangs of this planet; can it be that a man who begins
with violent visions is humble? He went on to wilder and wilder
stories about carving beasts into men and shooting angels like birds.
Is the man who shoots angels and carves beasts into men humble?
Since then he has done something bolder than either of these blasphemies;
he has prophesied the political future of all men; prophesied it
with aggressive authority and a ringing decision of detail.
Is the prophet of the future of all men humble ? It will indeed
be difficult, in the present condition of current thought about
such things as pride and humility, to answer the query of how a man
can be humble who does such big things and such bold things.
For the only answer is the answer which I gave at the beginning
of this essay. It is the humble man who does the big things.
It is the humble man who does the bold things. It is the humble
man who has the sensational sights vouchsafed to him, and this
for three obvious reasons: first, that he strains his eyes more
than any other men to see them; second, that he is more overwhelmed
and uplifted with them when they come; third, that he records
them more exactly and sincerely and with less adulteration
from his more commonplace and more conceited everyday self.
Adventures are to those to whom they are most unexpected--that is,
most romantic. Adventures are to the shy: in this sense adventures
are to the unadventurous.
Now, this arresting, mental humility in Mr. H. G. Wells may be,
like a great many other things that are vital and vivid, difficult to
illustrate by examples, but if I were asked for an example of it,
I should have no difficulty about which example to begin with.
The most interesting thing about Mr. H. G. Wells is that he is
the only one of his many brilliant contemporaries who has not
stopped growing. One can lie awake at night and hear him grow.
Of this growth the most evident manifestation is indeed a gradual
change of opinions; but it is no mere change of opinions.
It is not a perpetual leaping from one position to another like
that of Mr. George Moore. It is a quite continuous advance along
a quite solid road in a quite definable direction. But the chief
proof that it is not a piece of fickleness and vanity is the fact
that it has been upon the whole in advance from more startling
opinions to more humdrum opinions. It has been even in some sense
an advance from unconventional opinions to conventional opinions.
This fact fixes Mr. Wells's honesty and proves him to be no poseur.
Mr. Wells once held that the upper classes and the lower classes
would be so much differentiated in the future that one class would
eat the other. Certainly no paradoxical charlatan who had once
found arguments for so startling a view would ever have deserted it
except for something yet more startling. Mr. Wells has deserted it
in favour of the blameless belief that both classes will be ultimately
subordinated or assimilated to a sort of scientific middle class,
a class of engineers. He has abandoned the sensational theory with
the same honourable gravity and simplicity with which he adopted it.
Then he thought it was true; now he thinks it is not true.
He has come to the most dreadful conclusion a literary man can
come to, the conclusion that the ordinary view is the right one.
It is only the last and wildest kind of courage that can stand
on a tower before ten thousand people and tell them that twice
two is four.
Mr. H. G. Wells exists at present in a gay and exhilarating progress
of conservativism. He is finding out more and more that conventions,
though silent, are alive. As good an example as any of this
humility and sanity of his may be found in his change of view
on the subject of science and marriage. He once held, I believe,
the opinion which some singular sociologists still hold,
that human creatures could successfully be paired and bred after
the manner of dogs or horses. He no longer holds that view.
Not only does he no longer hold that view, but he has written about it
in "Mankind in the Making" with such smashing sense and humour, that I
find it difficult to believe that anybody else can hold it either.
It is true that his chief objection to the proposal is that it is
physically impossible, which seems to me a very slight objection,
and almost negligible compared with the others. The one objection
to scientific marriage which is worthy of final attention is simply
that such a thing could only be imposed on unthinkable slaves
and cowards. I do not know whether the scientific marriage-mongers
are right (as they say) or wrong (as Mr. Wells says) in saying
that medical supervision would produce strong and healthy men.
I am only certain that if it did, the first act of the strong
and healthy men would be to smash the medical supervision.
The mistake of all that medical talk lies in the very fact that it
connects the idea of health with the idea of care. What has health
to do with care? Health has to do with carelessness. In special
and abnormal cases it is necessary to have care. When we are peculiarly
unhealthy it may be necessary to be careful in order to be healthy.
But even then we are only trying to be healthy in order to be careless.
If we are doctors we are speaking to exceptionally sick men,
and they ought to be told to be careful. But when we are sociologists
we are addressing the normal man, we are addressing humanity.
And humanity ought to be told to be recklessness itself.
For all the fundamental functions of a healthy man ought emphatically
to be performed with pleasure and for pleasure; they emphatically
ought not to be performed with precaution or for precaution.
A man ought to eat because he has a good appetite to satisfy,
and emphatically not because he has a body to sustain. A man ought
to take exercise not because he is too fat, but because he loves foils
or horses or high mountains, and loves them for their own sake.
And a man ought to marry because he has fallen in love,
and emphatically not because the world requires to be populated.
The food will really renovate his tissues as long as he is not thinking
about his tissues. The exercise will really get him into training
so long as he is thinking about something else. And the marriage will
really stand some chance of producing a generous-blooded generation
if it had its origin in its own natural and generous excitement.
It is the first law of health that our necessities should not be
accepted as necessities; they should be accepted as luxuries.
Let us, then, be careful about the small things, such as a scratch
or a slight illness, or anything that can be managed with care.
But in the name of all sanity, let us be careless about the
important things, such as marriage, or the fountain of our very
life will fail.
Mr. Wells, however, is not quite clear enough of the narrower
scientific outlook to see that there are some things which actually
ought not to be scientific. He is still slightly affected with
the great scientific fallacy; I mean the habit of beginning not
with the human soul, which is the first thing a man learns about,
but with some such thing as protoplasm, which is about the last.
The one defect in his splendid mental equipment is that he does
not sufficiently allow for the stuff or material of men.
In his new Utopia he says, for instance, that a chief point of
the Utopia will be a disbelief in original sin. If he had begun
with the human soul--that is, if he had begun on himself--he would
have found original sin almost the first thing to be believed in.
He would have found, to put the matter shortly, that a permanent
possibility of selfishness arises from the mere fact of having a self,
and not from any accidents of education or ill-treatment. And
the weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest
difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give
an elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones.
They first assume that no man will want more than his share,
and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share
will be delivered by motor-car or balloon. And an even stronger
example of Mr. Wells's indifference to the human psychology can
be found in his cosmopolitanism, the abolition in his Utopia of all
patriotic boundaries. He says in his innocent way that Utopia
must be a world-state, or else people might make war on it.
It does not seem to occur to him that, for a good many of us, if it were
a world-state we should still make war on it to the end of the world.
For if we admit that there must be varieties in art or opinion what
sense is there in thinking there will not be varieties in government?
The fact is very simple. Unless you are going deliberately to prevent
a thing being good, you cannot prevent it being worth fighting for.
It is impossible to prevent a possible conflict of civilizations,
because it is impossible to prevent a possible conflict between ideals.
If there were no longer our modern strife between nations, there would
only be a strife between Utopias. For the highest thing does not tend
to union only; the highest thing, tends also to differentiation.
You can often get men to fight for the union; but you can
never prevent them from fighting also for the differentiation.
This variety in the highest thing is the meaning of the fierce patriotism,
the fierce nationalism of the great European civilization.
It is also, incidentally, the meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity.
But I think the main mistake of Mr. Wells's philosophy is a somewhat
deeper one, one that he expresses in a very entertaining manner
in the introductory part of the new Utopia. His philosophy in some
sense amounts to a denial of the possibility of philosophy itself.
At least, he maintains that there are no secure and reliable
ideas upon which we can rest with a final mental satisfaction.
It will be both clearer, however, and more amusing to quote
Mr. Wells himself.
He says, "Nothing endures, nothing is precise and certain
(except the mind of a pedant). . . . Being indeed!--there is no being,
but a universal becoming of individualities, and Plato turned his back
on truth when he turned towards his museum of specific ideals."
Mr. Wells says, again, "There is no abiding thing in what we know.
We change from weaker to stronger lights, and each more powerful
light pierces our hitherto opaque foundations and reveals
fresh and different opacities below." Now, when Mr. Wells
says things like this, I speak with all respect when I say
that he does not observe an evident mental distinction.
It cannot be true that there is nothing abiding in what we know.
For if that were so we should not know it all and should not call
it knowledge. Our mental state may be very different from that
of somebody else some thousands of years back; but it cannot be
entirely different, or else we should not be conscious of a difference.
Mr. Wells must surely realize the first and simplest of the paradoxes
that sit by the springs of truth. He must surely see that the fact
of two things being different implies that they are similar.
The hare and the tortoise may differ in the quality of swiftness,
but they must agree in the quality of motion. The swiftest hare
cannot be swifter than an isosceles triangle or the idea of pinkness.
When we say the hare moves faster, we say that the tortoise moves.
And when we say of a thing that it moves, we say, without need
of other words, that there are things that do not move.
And even in the act of saying that things change, we say that there
is something unchangeable.
But certainly the best example of Mr. Wells's fallacy can be
found in the example which he himself chooses. It is quite true
that we see a dim light which, compared with a darker thing,
is light, but which, compared with a stronger light, is darkness.
But the quality of light remains the same thing, or else we
should not call it a stronger light or recognize it as such.
If the character of light were not fixed in the mind, we should be
quite as likely to call a denser shadow a stronger light, or vice
versa If the character of light became even for an instant unfixed,
if it became even by a hair's-breadth doubtful, if, for example,
there crept into our idea of light some vague idea of blueness,
then in that flash we have become doubtful whether the new light
has more light or less. In brief, the progress may be as varying
as a cloud, but the direction must be as rigid as a French road.
North and South are relative in the sense that I am North of Bournemouth
and South of Spitzbergen. But if there be any doubt of the position
of the North Pole, there is in equal degree a doubt of whether I
am South of Spitzbergen at all. The absolute idea of light may be
practically unattainable. We may not be able to procure pure light.
We may not be able to get to the North Pole. But because the North
Pole is unattainable, it does not follow that it is indefinable.
And it is only because the North Pole is not indefinable that we
can make a satisfactory map of Brighton and Worthing.
In other words, Plato turned his face to truth but his back on
Mr. H. G. Wells, when he turned to his museum of specified ideals.
It is precisely here that Plato shows his sense. It is not true
that everything changes; the things that change are all the manifest
and material things. There is something that does not change;
and that is precisely the abstract quality, the invisible idea.
Mr. Wells says truly enough, that a thing which we have seen in one
connection as dark we may see in another connection as light.
But the thing common to both incidents is the mere idea of light--
which we have not seen at all. Mr. Wells might grow taller and taller
for unending aeons till his head was higher than the loneliest star.
I can imagine his writing a good novel about it. In that case
he would see the trees first as tall things and then as short things;
he would see the clouds first as high and then as low.
But there would remain with him through the ages in that starry
loneliness the idea of tallness; he would have in the awful spaces
for companion and comfort the definite conception that he was growing
taller and not (for instance) growing fatter.
And now it comes to my mind that Mr. H. G. Wells actually has written
a very delightful romance about men growing as tall as trees;
and that here, again, he seems to me to have been a victim of this
vague relativism. "The Food of the Gods" is, like Mr. Bernard
Shaw's play, in essence a study of the Superman idea. And it lies,
I think, even through the veil of a half-pantomimic allegory,
open to the same intellectual attack. We cannot be expected to have
any regard for a great creature if he does not in any manner conform
to our standards. For unless he passes our standard of greatness
we cannot even call him great. Nietszche summed up all that is
interesting in the Superman idea when he said, "Man is a thing
which has to be surpassed." But the very word "surpass" implies
the existence of a standard common to us and the thing surpassing us.
If the Superman is more manly than men are, of course they will
ultimately deify him, even if they happen to kill him first.
But if he is simply more supermanly, they may be quite indifferent
to him as they would be to another seemingly aimless monstrosity.
He must submit to our test even in order to overawe us.
Mere force or size even is a standard; but that alone will never
make men think a man their superior. Giants, as in the wise old
fairy-tales, are vermin. Supermen, if not good men, are vermin.
"The Food of the Gods" is the tale of "Jack the Giant-Killer"
told from the point of view of the giant. This has not, I think,
been done before in literature; but I have little doubt that the
psychological substance of it existed in fact. I have little doubt
that the giant whom Jack killed did regard himself as the Superman.
It is likely enough that he considered Jack a narrow and parochial person
who wished to frustrate a great forward movement of the life-force.
If (as not unfrequently was the case) he happened to have two heads,
he would point out the elementary maxim which declares them
to be better than one. He would enlarge on the subtle modernity
of such an equipment, enabling a giant to look at a subject
from two points of view, or to correct himself with promptitude.
But Jack was the champion of the enduring human standards,
of the principle of one man one head and one man one conscience,
of the single head and the single heart and the single eye.
Jack was quite unimpressed by the question of whether the giant was
a particularly gigantic giant. All he wished to know was whether
he was a good giant--that is, a giant who was any good to us.
What were the giant's religious views; what his views on politics
and the duties of the citizen? Was he fond of children--
or fond of them only in a dark and sinister sense ? To use a fine
phrase for emotional sanity, was his heart in the right place?
Jack had sometimes to cut him up with a sword in order to find out.
The old and correct story of Jack the Giant-Killer is simply the whole
story of man; if it were understood we should need no Bibles or histories.
But the modern world in particular does not seem to understand it at all.
The modern world, like Mr. Wells is on the side of the giants;
the safest place, and therefore the meanest and the most prosaic.
The modern world, when it praises its little Caesars,
talks of being strong and brave: but it does not seem to see
the eternal paradox involved in the conjunction of these ideas.
The strong cannot be brave. Only the weak can be brave;
and yet again, in practice, only those who can be brave can be trusted,
in time of doubt, to be strong. The only way in which a giant could
really keep himself in training against the inevitable Jack would
be by continually fighting other giants ten times as big as himself.
That is by ceasing to be a giant and becoming a Jack.
Thus that sympathy with the small or the defeated as such,
with which we Liberals and Nationalists have been often reproached,
is not a useless sentimentalism at all, as Mr. Wells and his
friends fancy. It is the first law of practical courage.
To be in the weakest camp is to be in the strongest school.
Nor can I imagine anything that would do humanity more good than
the advent of a race of Supermen, for them to fight like dragons.
If the Superman is better than we, of course we need not fight him;
but in that case, why not call him the Saint? But if he is
merely stronger (whether physically, mentally, or morally stronger,
I do not care a farthing), then he ought to have to reckon with us
at least for all the strength we have. It we are weaker than he,
that is no reason why we should be weaker than ourselves.
If we are not tall enough to touch the giant's knees, that is
no reason why we should become shorter by falling on our own.
But that is at bottom the meaning of all modern hero-worship
and celebration of the Strong Man, the Caesar the Superman.
That he may be something more than man, we must be something less.
Doubtless there is an older and better hero-worship than this.
But the old hero was a being who, like Achilles, was more human
than humanity itself. Nietzsche's Superman is cold and friendless.
Achilles is so foolishly fond of his friend that he slaughters
armies in the agony of his bereavement. Mr. Shaw's sad Caesar says
in his desolate pride, "He who has never hoped can never despair."
The Man-God of old answers from his awful hill, "Was ever sorrow
like unto my sorrow?" A great man is not a man so strong that he feels
less than other men; he is a man so strong that he feels more.
And when Nietszche says, "A new commandment I give to you, `be hard,'"
he is really saying, "A new commandment I give to you, `be dead.'"
Sensibility is the definition of life.
I recur for a last word to Jack the Giant-Killer. I have dwelt
on this matter of Mr. Wells and the giants, not because it is
specially prominent in his mind; I know that the Superman does
not bulk so large in his cosmos as in that of Mr. Bernard Shaw.
I have dwelt on it for the opposite reason; because this heresy
of immoral hero-worship has taken, I think, a slighter hold of him,
and may perhaps still be prevented from perverting one of
the best thinkers of the day. In the course of "The New Utopia"
Mr. Wells makes more than one admiring allusion to Mr. W. E. Henley.
That clever and unhappy man lived in admiration of a vague violence,
and was always going back to rude old tales and rude old ballads,
to strong and primitive literatures, to find the praise of strength
and the justification of tyranny. But he could not find it.
It is not there. The primitive literature is shown in the tale of Jack
the Giant-Killer. The strong old literature is all in praise of the weak.
The rude old tales are as tender to minorities as any modern
political idealist. The rude old ballads are as sentimentally
concerned for the under-dog as the Aborigines Protection Society.
When men were tough and raw, when they lived amid hard knocks and
hard laws, when they knew what fighting really was, they had only
two kinds of songs. The first was a rejoicing that the weak had
conquered the strong, the second a lamentation that the strong had,
for once in a way, conquered the weak. For this defiance of
the statu quo, this constant effort to alter the existing balance,
this premature challenge to the powerful, is the whole nature and
inmost secret of the psychological adventure which is called man.
It is his strength to disdain strength. The forlorn hope
is not only a real hope, it is the only real hope of mankind.
In the coarsest ballads of the greenwood men are admired most when
they defy, not only the king, but what is more to the point, the hero.
The moment Robin Hood becomes a sort of Superman, that moment
the chivalrous chronicler shows us Robin thrashed by a poor tinker
whom he thought to thrust aside. And the chivalrous chronicler
makes Robin Hood receive the thrashing in a glow of admiration.
This magnanimity is not a product of modern humanitarianism;
it is not a product of anything to do with peace.
This magnanimity is merely one of the lost arts of war.
The Henleyites call for a sturdy and fighting England, and they go
back to the fierce old stories of the sturdy and fighting English.
And the thing that they find written across that fierce old
literature everywhere, is "the policy of Majuba."
VI. Christmas and the Aesthetes
The world is round, so round that the schools of optimism and pessimism
have been arguing from the beginning whether it is the right way up.
The difficulty does not arise so much from the mere fact that good and
evil are mingled in roughly equal proportions; it arises chiefly from
the fact that men always differ about what parts are good and what evil.
Hence the difficulty which besets "undenominational religions."
They profess to include what is beautiful in all creeds, but they
appear to many to have collected all that is dull in them.
All the colours mixed together in purity ought to make a perfect white.
Mixed together on any human paint-box, they make a thing like mud, and a
thing very like many new religions. Such a blend is often something much
worse than any one creed taken separately, even the creed of the Thugs.
The error arises from the difficulty of detecting what is really
the good part and what is really the bad part of any given religion.
And this pathos falls rather heavily on those persons who have
the misfortune to think of some religion or other, that the parts
commonly counted good are bad, and the parts commonly counted
bad are good.
It is tragic to admire and honestly admire a human group, but to admire
it in a photographic negative. It is difficult to congratulate all
their whites on being black and all their blacks on their whiteness.
This will often happen to us in connection with human religions.
Take two institutions which bear witness to the religious energy
of the nineteenth century. Take the Salvation Army and the philosophy
of Auguste Comte.
The usual verdict of educated people on the Salvation Army is
expressed in some such words as these: "I have no doubt they do
a great deal of good, but they do it in a vulgar and profane style;
their aims are excellent, but their methods are wrong."
To me, unfortunately, the precise reverse of this appears to be
the truth. I do not know whether the aims of the Salvation Army
are excellent, but I am quite sure their methods are admirable.
Their methods are the methods of all intense and hearty religions;
they are popular like all religion, military like all religion,
public and sensational like all religion. They are not reverent any more
than Roman Catholics are reverent, for reverence in the sad and delicate
meaning of the term reverence is a thing only possible to infidels.
That beautiful twilight you will find in Euripides, in Renan,
in Matthew Arnold; but in men who believe you will not find it--
you will find only laughter and war. A man cannot pay that kind
of reverence to truth solid as marble; they can only be reverent
towards a beautiful lie. And the Salvation Army, though their voice
has broken out in a mean environment and an ugly shape, are really
the old voice of glad and angry faith, hot as the riots of Dionysus,
wild as the gargoyles of Catholicism, not to be mistaken for a philosophy.
Professor Huxley, in one of his clever phrases, called the Salvation
Army "corybantic Christianity." Huxley was the last and noblest
of those Stoics who have never understood the Cross. If he had
understood Christianity he would have known that there never has been,
and never can be, any Christianity that is not corybantic.
And there is this difference between the matter of aims and
the matter of methods, that to judge of the aims of a thing like
the Salvation Army is very difficult, to judge of their ritual
and atmosphere very easy. No one, perhaps, but a sociologist
can see whether General Booth's housing scheme is right.
But any healthy person can see that banging brass cymbals together
must be right. A page of statistics, a plan of model dwellings,
anything which is rational, is always difficult for the lay mind.
But the thing which is irrational any one can understand.
That is why religion came so early into the world and spread so far,
while science came so late into the world and has not spread at all.
History unanimously attests the fact that it is only mysticism
which stands the smallest chance of being understanded of the people.
Common sense has to be kept as an esoteric secret in the dark temple
of culture. And so while the philanthropy of the Salvationists and its
genuineness may be a reasonable matter for the discussion of the doctors,
there can be no doubt about the genuineness of their brass bands,
for a brass band is purely spiritual, and seeks only to quicken
the internal life. The object of philanthropy is to do good;
the object of religion is to be good, if only for a moment,
amid a crash of brass.
And the same antithesis exists about another modern religion--I mean
the religion of Comte, generally known as Positivism, or the worship
of humanity. Such men as Mr. Frederic Harrison, that brilliant
and chivalrous philosopher, who still, by his mere personality,
speaks for the creed, would tell us that he offers us the philosophy
of Comte, but not all Comte's fantastic proposals for pontiffs
and ceremonials, the new calendar, the new holidays and saints' days.
He does not mean that we should dress ourselves up as priests
of humanity or let off fireworks because it is Milton's birthday.
To the solid English Comtist all this appears, he confesses, to be
a little absurd. To me it appears the only sensible part of Comtism.
As a philosophy it is unsatisfactory. It is evidently impossible to
worship humanity, just as it is impossible to worship the Savile Club;
both are excellent institutions to which we may happen to belong.
But we perceive clearly that the Savile Club did not make the stars
and does not fill the universe. And it is surely unreasonable to attack
the doctrine of the Trinity as a piece of bewildering mysticism,
and then to ask men to worship a being who is ninety million persons
in one God, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
But if the wisdom of Comte was insufficient, the folly of Comte
was wisdom. In an age of dusty modernity, when beauty was thought
of as something barbaric and ugliness as something sensible,
he alone saw that men must always have the sacredness of mummery.
He saw that while the brutes have all the useful things, the things
that are truly human are the useless ones. He saw the falsehood
of that almost universal notion of to-day, the notion that rites
and forms are something artificial, additional, and corrupt.
Ritual is really much older than thought; it is much simpler and much
wilder than thought. A feeling touching the nature of things does
not only make men feel that there are certain proper things to say;
it makes them feel that there are certain proper things to do.
The more agreeable of these consist of dancing, building temples,
and shouting very loud; the less agreeable, of wearing
green carnations and burning other philosophers alive.
But everywhere the religious dance came before the religious hymn,
and man was a ritualist before he could speak. If Comtism had spread
the world would have been converted, not by the Comtist philosophy,
but by the Comtist calendar. By discouraging what they conceive
to be the weakness of their master, the English Positivists
have broken the strength of their religion. A man who has faith
must be prepared not only to be a martyr, but to be a fool.
It is absurd to say that a man is ready to toil and die for his convictions
when he is not even ready to wear a wreath round his head for them.
I myself, to take a corpus vile, am very certain that I would not
read the works of Comte through for any consideration whatever.
But I can easily imagine myself with the greatest enthusiasm lighting
a bonfire on Darwin Day.
That splendid effort failed, and nothing in the style of it has succeeded.
There has been no rationalist festival, no rationalist ecstasy.
Men are still in black for the death of God. When Christianity was heavily
bombarded in the last century upon no point was it more persistently and
brilliantly attacked than upon that of its alleged enmity to human joy.
Shelley and Swinburne and all their armies have passed again and again
over the ground, but they have not altered it. They have not set up
a single new trophy or ensign for the world's merriment to rally to.
They have not given a name or a new occasion of gaiety.
Mr. Swinburne does not hang up his stocking on the eve of the birthday
of Victor Hugo. Mr. William Archer does not sing carols descriptive
of the infancy of Ibsen outside people's doors in the snow.
In the round of our rational and mournful year one festival remains
out of all those ancient gaieties that once covered the whole earth.
Christmas remains to remind us of those ages, whether Pagan or Christian,
when the many acted poetry instead of the few writing it.
In all the winter in our woods there is no tree in glow but the holly.
The strange truth about the matter is told in the very word "holiday."
A bank holiday means presumably a day which bankers regard as holy.
A half-holiday means, I suppose, a day on which a schoolboy is only
partially holy. It is hard to see at first sight why so human a thing
as leisure and larkiness should always have a religious origin.
Rationally there appears no reason why we should not sing and give
each other presents in honour of anything--the birth of Michael
Angelo or the opening of Euston Station. But it does not work.
As a fact, men only become greedily and gloriously material about
something spiritualistic. Take away the Nicene Creed and similar things,
and you do some strange wrong to the sellers of sausages.
Take away the strange beauty of the saints, and what has
remained to us is the far stranger ugliness of Wandsworth.
Take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural.
And now I have to touch upon a very sad matter. There are in the modern
world an admirable class of persons who really make protest on behalf
of that antiqua pulchritudo of which Augustine spoke, who do long
for the old feasts and formalities of the childhood of the world.
William Morris and his followers showed how much brighter were
the dark ages than the age of Manchester. Mr. W. B. Yeats frames
his steps in prehistoric dances, but no man knows and joins his voice
to forgotten choruses that no one but he can hear. Mr. George Moore
collects every fragment of Irish paganism that the forgetfulness
of the Catholic Church has left or possibly her wisdom preserved.
There are innumerable persons with eye-glasses and green garments
who pray for the return of the maypole or the Olympian games.
But there is about these people a haunting and alarming something
which suggests that it is just possible that they do not keep Christmas.
It is painful to regard human nature in such a light,
but it seems somehow possible that Mr. George Moore does
not wave his spoon and shout when the pudding is set alight.
It is even possible that Mr. W. B. Yeats never pulls crackers.
If so, where is the sense of all their dreams of festive traditions?
Here is a solid and ancient festive tradition still plying
a roaring trade in the streets, and they think it vulgar.
if this is so, let them be very certain of this, that they are
the kind of people who in the time of the maypole would have thought
the maypole vulgar; who in the time of the Canterbury pilgrimage
would have thought the Canterbury pilgrimage vulgar; who in the time
of the Olympian games would have thought the Olympian games vulgar.
Nor can there be any reasonable doubt that they were vulgar.
Let no man deceive himself; if by vulgarity we mean coarseness of speech,
rowdiness of behaviour, gossip, horseplay, and some heavy drinking,
vulgarity there always was wherever there was joy, wherever there was
faith in the gods. Wherever you have belief you will have hilarity,
wherever you have hilarity you will have some dangers. And as creed
and mythology produce this gross and vigorous life, so in its turn
this gross and vigorous life will always produce creed and mythology.
If we ever get the English back on to the English land they will become
again a religious people, if all goes well, a superstitious people.
The absence from modern life of both the higher and lower forms of faith
is largely due to a divorce from nature and the trees and clouds.
If we have no more turnip ghosts it is chiefly from the lack of turnips.
VII. Omar and the Sacred Vine
A new morality has burst upon us with some violence in connection
with the problem of strong drink; and enthusiasts in the matter
range from the man who is violently thrown out at 12.30, to the lady
who smashes American bars with an axe. In these discussions it
is almost always felt that one very wise and moderate position is
to say that wine or such stuff should only be drunk as a medicine.
With this I should venture to disagree with a peculiar ferocity.
The one genuinely dangerous and immoral way of drinking wine is to drink
it as a medicine. And for this reason, If a man drinks wine in order
to obtain pleasure, he is trying to obtain something exceptional,
something he does not expect every hour of the day, something which,
unless he is a little insane, he will not try to get every hour
of the day. But if a man drinks wine in order to obtain health,
he is trying to get something natural; something, that is,
that he ought not to be without; something that he may find it
difficult to reconcile himself to being without. The man may not
be seduced who has seen the ecstasy of being ecstatic; it is more
dazzling to catch a glimpse of the ecstasy of being ordinary.
If there were a magic ointment, and we took it to a strong man,
and said, "This will enable you to jump off the Monument,"
doubtless he would jump off the Monument, but he would not jump
off the Monument all day long to the delight of the City.
But if we took it to a blind man, saying, "This will enable you to see,"
he would be under a heavier temptation. It would be hard for him
not to rub it on his eyes whenever he heard the hoof of a noble
horse or the birds singing at daybreak. It is easy to deny one's
self festivity; it is difficult to deny one's self normality.
Hence comes the fact which every doctor knows, that it is often
perilous to give alcohol to the sick even when they need it.
I need hardly say that I do not mean that I think the giving
of alcohol to the sick for stimulus is necessarily unjustifiable.
But I do mean that giving it to the healthy for fun is the proper
use of it, and a great deal more consistent with health.
The sound rule in the matter would appear to be like many other
sound rules--a paradox. Drink because you are happy, but never because
you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it,
or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum;
but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like
the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it,
for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell.
But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking,
and the ancient health of the world.
For more than thirty years the shadow and glory of a great
Eastern figure has lain upon our English literature.
Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyam concentrated into an
immortal poignancy all the dark and drifting hedonism of our time.
Of the literary splendour of that work it would be merely banal to speak;
in few other of the books of men has there been anything so combining
the gay pugnacity of an epigram with the vague sadness of a song.
But of its philosophical, ethical, and religious influence which has
been almost as great as its brilliancy, I should like to say a word,
and that word, I confess, one of uncompromising hostility.
There are a great many things which might be said against
the spirit of the Rubaiyat, and against its prodigious influence.
But one matter of indictment towers ominously above the rest--
a genuine disgrace to it, a genuine calamity to us. This is the terrible
blow that this great poem has struck against sociability and the joy
of life. Some one called Omar "the sad, glad old Persian."
Sad he is; glad he is not, in any sense of the word whatever.
He has been a worse foe to gladness than the Puritans.
A pensive and graceful Oriental lies under the rose-tree
with his wine-pot and his scroll of poems. It may seem strange