Did all the world in one fair flame appear,
And were that flame a real infinite,
‘Twould yield no profit, splendour nor delight.
. . . . . . .
One star made infinite would all exclude,
An earth made infinite could ne’er be viewed.
But one being fashioned for the other’s sake,
He bounding all, did all most useful make:
And which is best, in profit and delight,
Tho’ not in bulk, they all are infinite.
I like in France the chivalry,
The Catalonian lass for me,
The Genoese for working well
But for a Court commend Castile.
For song no country to Provence
And Treves must carry’t for a dance.
The finest shapes in Arragon,
In Juliers they speak in tune.
The English for a head or face,
For boys, troth, Tuscany’s the place.
‘Be sure to study the great diversity of human nature,’ said Kant. Wise counsel. The most troublesome thing in M. the world is the individual man. If anything is in evidence he is in evidence, and the varieties of this creature are without end. Many are the races and many the temperaments. Who will enumerate them? There are vehement and hot-headed men, selfless and conciliatory men. There are sybarites and ascetics, dreamers and bustling active men of affairs, clever and stupid, worldly and religious, mockers and mystics, pugnacious, loyal, cunning, treacherous, cheerful and melancholy men. There are eagles among them, tigers, doves and serpents. They display, varying as they do in appearance, talents, behaviour, every type of unpredictable reaction to their surroundings. ‘He was a comedian on the stage,’ said the wife of a celebrated ‘funny’ man, ‘but a tragedian in the home.’ History is, in consequence, the despair of philosophy. The mighty Hegel, who twirled the universe round his finger, found history much more difficult to handle, for it consists of the doings of innumerable, unique, obstinate individuals. They decline to submit to any common measure, or to be marshalled under any unifying principle. Their proceedings are incalculable. The essence of individuality lies precisely here—its wilfulness. You cannot predict what it may do.
If individual persons are the despair of philosophy, single instances, unique events, are equally the despair of science, utterly refractory and clean beyond her range. History consists of separate, unique events—the battle of Salamis, the capture of Constantinople, the sailing of the Pilgrim Fathers. The affections of science are set upon docile things and events, susceptible of classification, and assignable to laws—laws which govern many cases, and preferably all cases. If each individual goes his own way, if electrons set up for themselves, there is an end to prediction. Then science, which glories in prediction, which desires to obliterate differences, has no option but to fall back upon a calculation of averages. In the world of men, however, averages soon fail you. If a Napoleon or a Lenin chance to be born, philosophy and science avert their horrified gaze. No one can tell what may happen. A single person, anatomically similar to the rest, proceeds to turn the world upside down. To plot the curve of Cleopatra’s career is beyond the mathematicians. ‘Had her nose been shorter’, as Pascal said, ‘the whole course of the world would have been altered.’ And, fortunately or unfortunately, nature pours out these interesting, unique beings in extravagant profusion. She never repeats her patterns, not so much as in the making of a single leaf. She appears to have as her chief end the multiplication and intensification of their peculiarities, and to rejoice in them. The human mind, as represented in philosophy and science, nourishes a devouring passion for unification. To our discomfiture nature displays an equal passion for novelty and unexpectedness.
What can be made of this heterogeneous mob of individuals, this riotous confusion of events we call history? Logic demands the universal, and nature supplies nothing but the particular. The world, we know, has no exclusiveness. It contains everything, provides for everything, welcomes the ugly and the beautiful, the high and the low, the good and the bad. We human beings are not so broad-minded. We discriminate, we approve and disapprove. Nature exhibits no discrimination, neither likes nor dislikes. How are we to explain this incongruity, and how are we to account for the age-long, sustained effort of science and philosophy to submerge the particular in the universal, to be rid at all costs of the unique individual and the unique event? The answer is not far to seek. There can be no philosophy or science of unique individuals or events. They have simply to be accepted. They are irrationals. Reason cannot deal with them. For what do we mean by rational? We mean that which is reducible to a principle, a rule or order; an entity which refuses submission to any law or principle is irrational, and lies altogether outside the province of our poor, groping understandings. In brief, such an entity is just itself and a law to itself. Each man’s self, for example, is such an entity. So it is that science and philosophy cry out for a unity, or postulate a unity. They have no choice, their very existence is at stake. The world, they insist, is one, for if it be not one, the game is up, and reason quits the field.
Take a look at the matter from another angle. Needless to say, we are not the architects of the world, we have not made nature. It is spread out there before us, a picturesque collection of heterogeneous, wholly dissimilar objects, here seas, there mountains or deserts, plants or animals. Nature revels in their various shapes and colours. That is what we see, the picture as it hangs before our sight. Faced with this variegated scene, this multiplicity of things, the eye is very well pleased, the artist entranced. The inquisitive intellect is, however, on the contrary, extremely ill at ease, confused, restless. As a picture this world of ours is no doubt satisfactory enough, these green fields, rushing rivers, grazing cattle, flying birds. You might even go so far in enthusiastic moments as to call it charming or sublime. But all these forms and colours, these endless differences, cannot by the enquiring mind be simply taken for granted. They have to be accounted for. How have they arisen?
In the endeavour to understand how they came about the human intellect is struck by a brilliant idea. How much easier, it tells itself, would be the comprehension of these endless diverse things if they could be shown as in the end identical, arising out of one thing, substance or state—if, for example, as Tyndall claimed in his famous Belfast address in 1874, in matter was to be found ‘the promise and potency of every form and quality of life’, of all the world contained. By this captivating idea not Tyndall’s alone, but many great intellects have been spell-bound. For this identity, or unity, they have hungered with an inappeasable appetite. This has been the aim of their strivings, their shining ideal. ‘Most cosmogonies have taken as their starting-point’, writes Sir James Jeans, ‘the supposition that the universe started as a chaotic mass of gas.’ With some more subtle philosophers it is Space-Time. You heave a sigh of relief, your enquiry has reached its goal, at last you understand. All that is, was or ever shall be, originated from Space-Time or Gas. In one or other you have ‘the promise and the potency of every form and quality of life’. You have now discovered that all things, the stone and the river, the star and the butterfly, the rose, the eagle and the banknote are, despite their superficial differences, one and the same, forms of the identical underlying substance. And to this list you will add also all existing minds; all thoughts that men have had were once present, in some fashion, in a flaming mass of incandescent gas. Reason itself, which enquires into the matter was necessarily, of course, also somehow present in the promise and potency of this original substance. To begin with there was nothing else. For this unity you may coin any name which suits your fancy. Call it God, and you will satisfy the theologians, Energy, and the man of science will be content, the Absolute, and you will secure the votes of the philosophers.
The formula has one weakness, its moment of success is also the moment of failure. It is as if having observed that all books consisted of words, you proceeded to the conclusion that they were all in the same language and finally indistinguishable. Shakespere and Marie Corelli are exactly alike. The awkward thing is that when differences disappear, the world disappears. The peculiarity of the world is this very multiplicity and heterogeneity, the fact that it is infinitely and unsubduably varied. Not only do the differences remain when you have disposed of them, but if, indeed, you did succeed per impossible in disposing of them, existence, which is variety, is precipitated into an undifferentiated unity, which is, in effect, whatever you elect to call it, blank nothing.
Where now is the evidence for this pious opinion? There is none, save the mind’s prejudice in its favour. ‘Academic philosophers ever since the time of Parmenides’, says Lord Russell, ‘have believed the world is a unity. The most fundamental of my beliefs is that this is rubbish.’ Yet, with few exceptions the great system-builders are against him. For the most part they stand resolutely on the side of the One. If, however, we look around us, and ask for the evidence, it appears to support and support impressively, overwhelmingly, the case for the Many, the multitudinous variety of existing things, from clouds and trees to thoughts and emotions. The attachment of the mind to the One seems to arise from some kind of aesthetic satisfaction the idea offers. It provides a support for the mind. As the bird, blown out to sea, seeks rest in the rigging of a ship from the surrounding waste of waters, so the mind, wearied by the ceaseless tempest of its multifarious impressions, seeks a refuge from the eternal flux of transitory things, and is driven to declare the vexatious, unmanageable Many an illusion, a passing show. The Whole, or One, has somehow fallen into plurality, but the true supreme or ultimate reality remains, none the less, unquestionably in the One. For reality, if you enquire of the philosophers or the men of science, invariably resides where you least expect it. It is at once everywhere and nowhere, and eludes the most painstaking search. It conceals itself in the Absolute, as we have seen, or in Space-Time.
You have thus in philosophy a distressing situation, to which the new-comer has difficulty in accustoming himself, the tire-some and perplexing situation that the appearance is never in any circumstances the reality, and the reality never puts in an appearance. You and I, for example, since we are undeniably appearances, must pay the penalty ‘The purely individualist self, or mere individual’, General Smuts tells us, ‘is a figment of abstraction.’ He talks the language of the philosophers, by which the plain man is dumbfounded. No doubt, we must all agree that the solitary hermit is rarely to be met with. Robinson Crusoes do not abound. No doubt the scene of operations for most of us is the community to which we belong. We are all children of earth and are supported by the surrounding universe. Yet it may be pertinently asked, ‘Is it not this very separateness that makes the individual what he is? Is it not his essential quality?’ The single person may even go so far as to place himself in strenuous opposition to the society in which he finds himself, Athanasius contra mundum. ‘Those who speak of men in general, speak of nobody,’ said Stilpo. However much of an abstraction he may be, the religious and legal systems place upon the individual the burden of responsibility for his own character and conduct. It is the individual, for example, who has to make the best of his lack of ways and means. It is the individual who knows where the shoe pinches. It is he, the figment of abstraction, who is hungry and thirsty, who thinks, wills and feels, and it is he who bears the burden of his soul’s anxieties, upon whom all the demands are laid, who is blamed or praised, rewarded or punished. It is this unfortunate who suffers and dies. In answer to the incessant requirements of the other figments of abstraction, as for example the tax-collector, he is never permitted to plead that he is a mere appearance. In contrast to the noble reality, which despite its ubiquity, or by reason of it, has ‘neither a body to be kicked nor a soul to be damned’, the individual, having both, is in a sorry plight, the most miserable of entities. He is continually in the firing line and receives all the wounds. According to this logic the army is real, but the soldiers have no true existence. Yet this body that can be kicked and this soul that can be damned confer upon their unhappy owner no sort of compensation, no dignity, no privileges. Properly speaking, it seems, he does not exist at all. Alas, for our poor selves! The pessimists have something to say for themselves when they declare that the separation of the One into the Many was a lamentable error.
If now we turn from the metaphysicians to the ethical idealists, the men with a mission, who propose to improve matters, we meet once more the same famous problem of the One and the Many. They, indeed, like the rest of us, are sadly conscious that, in respect of human beings at least, the world is emphatically not a unity. If it were, they would be out of employment. Finding, as do the metaphysicians, that the diversity is intolerable, they determine that a unity it must be made. If men, as is only too evident, are not of one mind, they conceive it their business to see to it that they become of one mind, agreeing together, animated by the same principles and the same aims. The idea is, we may concede, fascinating. Yet over against them, as over against the philosophers, stands nature as before, in determined opposition. While all these thinkers are busily engaged in their favourite task of unification, nature perversely pursues the opposite path of diversification. She is, as we have seen, the great separater. She separates element from element, plants from animals, one species from another species, and erects barriers between them. Look at the creatures of the sea and land, every variety of insect, bird, fish, walking, flying, and creeping thing. Nor does it end there. Different patterns of life and culture prevail over all the inhabited lands. The castes in India are not numbered by hundreds, but by thousands. The fishermen who make their nets in one way will neither associate nor marry with those who make them in another. Intoxication forms a part of the religious rites among American Indians, war is unknown among the Eskimos. The ancient Mexicans practised self-torture, as the Indian fakirs do to-day. One man’s reason is to another damnably unreasonable. Death is preferable to ‘loss of face’ with the Chinese. It was at one time their custom to erect statues to dishonour traitors and politicians who had brought evil to their country; we do so to those who have brought it benefits.
To the disgust of the reformers, the world is a tower of Babel, a confusion of tongues. And not merely a confusion of tongues, but a confusion of desires and purposes. For it is not races and languages which separate men so sharply as the varieties of their nature and disposition. What seems wisdom in the West seems folly in the East. What delights one disgusts another. The adventurer is at a loss to understand the satisfaction to be derived from committees and conferences. The lover of sport is amazed at the scholar’s milk and water tastes. The artist looks upon the moralist as a fanatic, and the moralist returns the compliment by thinking the artist a libertine. The lover of power obtains no happiness from the visions of the mystic, the lover of pleasure sees only folly in the mortifications of the saint. They incline to regard each other as degraded or perverted. Every being pursues the ends dictated by his own nature or needs. The hater of war cannot conceive why Marlborough or Hannibal should not have been willing to spend their lives growing cabbages. The Chinese regard the soldier as the most debased type of human being, the Japanese look upon him as the noblest. The humanitarian Godwin was of opinion that ‘monogamy is the most odious of all monopolies’, and the Christian bishop regards bigamy with horror.
Human life seethes with dissensions and disapprovals. When men no longer fight with rifles, they fight with economic weapons, and universally with their tongues. We disapprove, and that heartily, of our neighbour’s opinions, of his habits, of his tastes. Even when they have no effect upon our own fortunes, we cannot bear with this or that characteristic of other men, their horrid manners or ridiculous accents. Disapproval occupies the greater part of our conversation. And if nothing were left of which to disapprove, the salt of life would lose its savour. Nothing, we think, our world-planners think, could be more desirable than a unanimity of opinion, which would solve all our problems. Men should certainly think alike, feel alike, love and hate the same things, have, in short, a common standard of values. Best of all, if they accepted without demur our preferences, our sympathies and antipathies. They unhappily do not, and we have to accept the exasperating situation. ‘Nothing is good for everyone’, as the Greek sceptics pointed out, ‘as snow is cold for everyone, for the same thing is judged good by one and evil by another.’
Moreover, if we desire to hold to our own convictions, how can we expect our neighbours to yield upon theirs? Upon what do we base our own superiority? ‘Show me the man’, said Plato, ‘able to see both the One and the Many in nature, and I will follow in his footsteps as though he were a god.’
This ancient problem of the One and the Many, then, has two sides, the metaphysical and the practical. Both have exercised the minds of men throughout the ages. If the reality is one, as the philosophers maintain, how did it become so amazingly diversified? How did the original One come to develop these antagonistic forces, these discontinuous parts? How did the particularities arise?
Linus, a Theban, was, the historians inform us, the first man who taught that all things originated in one thing, and when dissolved, returned to the same thing. And, as we have seen, the great calamity, many have argued, the cause of all our woe, was the tragic disruption of the One into the Many. In their view, therefore, our hopes should be centred upon the return of the Many into the all-embracing Whole, from whose bosom they should never have emerged. That is, when the thought has been stripped of all its philosophical wrappings, how much better had there been no world at all. Nor is the thought very complimentary to the original One, which is credited with a vast absurdity, the preposterous folly of letting loose a legion of ills for no purpose. The One, had it possessed any wisdom would have remained the One, at rest throughout eternity. Why produce all this discomfort, why all this doing merely in order to undo? To this question no coherent answer has been given. The attempts to build a metaphysical bridge between the One and the Many, the whole and its parts, are countless, and not an arch has ever yet been completed.
And the practical problem, the chief concern of the moralists and reformers, has proved no less intractable. Not all, indeed, yet a number of our troubles arise from the fact that there are a good many people in the world, about two thousand millions. They do not think alike, nor desire the same things or the same type of life.
For no three of us will agree
Where or what churches there should be.
If we assume that not more than one in twenty have opinions, we have still a hundred million opinions. Men do not agree upon what God would have them do, even when they believe in His existence. They do not agree how life should be lived. They are not in agreement upon the best means of obtaining felicity, either in this world or the next. How then is co-operation among them to be brought about? How are the varieties among men and their desires to be eliminated? How is the required harmony to be attained? Not, I think, by ‘addressing eloquent insults to the human race’. The majority must rule, you think. But the rule of the majority is not, as Burke saw, a law of nature, and there will be recalcitrant minorities. How are they to be dealt with? By ruling them justly? What you call justice they regard as monstrous tyranny.
The idealist aims at a grand consensus of opinion. We cannot blame him. He has to meet, however, ‘the huge army of the world’s desires.’ ‘Men cannot work together’, said Confucius, very wisely, ‘until they have similar principles.’ Precisely; whose principles, then, are to be selected for the laurel crown? Whose ideals are to be accepted as the universal ideals, to which all others, perhaps yours and mine, are to be sacrificed? That the world-wide diversity of aims, interests, opinions leads to quarrels, conflicts and war needs no demonstration. Not till the interests of men coincide can you expect their wills to coincide. These interests, however, are in everlasting collision.
The question is not simply how men are to be persuaded
To seek another’s profit
And work another’s gain.
There remains the task of selecting among the competing principles those most worthy above all others to enlist the combined and sustained support needed to establish them. Let us suppose a parliament of man—upon which some rest their hopes for the future—to be established for the determination of these guiding principles. How awkward would it be, indeed how unpleasant, if it chanced that our peculiar national traditions and ideals found no favour there, if others distasteful and even abhorrent to us were preferred, and our sympathy and support were required for customs, laws, institutions, or even a religion alien to all our cherished ways of thought and profoundest convictions. You think the idea preposterous. I am not so sure—far from it. We suppose that our religion and our principles must commend themselves to all the peoples of the world, now and in the future, as the best, as destined to prevail, to be accepted, and to endure till the end of time. Yet what reason have we to dream such dreams? Look at the facts. We are a people of some fifty millions. And our birth-rate, like the birth-rate of some of our immediate neighbours, is falling fast, so fast that, if the present decline continues, in a hundred years our population will be below ten millions, and in some European countries no children would be born at all. Over against this Europe, of which we are but a fragment, is an Asia, not to speak of Africa, with a population of over a thousand millions. During the last century the population of the world has doubled. Asia is ‘an ant-heap of men’. The population of Russia alone outnumbers the whole of the rest of Europe. The population of Japan has doubled within the last sixty years, and is now increasing at the rate of a million annually. India’s population rises by ten millions annually. Does it appear very probable that, within a century or two, it will be our descendants, and not the children of these teeming races who will possess the earth? With our very limited population, our falling birth-rate, our practice and advocacy of birth-control, is it not much more probable, is it not certain, that our trade and institutions will suffer hardship, that we may even be dispossessed of our present territories?
There is a further question. Would these prolific peoples not have a moral claim to be our successors? Have we any divine right to the best things of the world in perpetuity? Of course, we may shrug our shoulders, and not think of these things, but the avoidance of thought will not retard their arrival. The immediate prospect has an exceedingly dreary look. ‘I confess’, writes Dean Inge, ‘I have been amazed and appalled by the total and almost unresisted destruction of liberty in one European country after another. I could not have believed twenty years ago that such a thing was possible.’ The Dean appears to have read history to little purpose if he looked forward to a static world. There are ages still to come, and imagination dizzies at the flight of past and coming time.
A recent very learned student of history, Mr. A. J. Toynbee, tells us that there have been twenty-one civilisations in all so far, of which fourteen are wholly extinct. Before half the time the physicists predict our planet is likely to last, if civilisations follow each other at the same rate in years to come, we may look forward to a million and a half civilisations of varied style and pattern, before the chequered story of humanity ends in the final destruction foretold by the law of entropy. And some of them will be, one conjectures, extremely unlike our own. The primacy of Europe, which we thought everlasting, her exploitation of the East, has gone. Her monopoly in trade, in manufactures, in the management of the backward countries is fast vanishing.
It will not be claimed that the prospects even of the Christian religion are at the moment very promising. Two thousand years have passed since the birth of Christ, and the Christians in the world are still outnumbered by two to one. Christian values are not everywhere, nor have they been during its history at all times, acceptable. Had the Northmen succeeded, as they came near doing, in establishing their culture upon Europe by force of arms, we should to-day have been living under a wholly different standard of social and moral values. Instead of meekness and self-abnegation, the Christian virtues, we should have admired self-reliance and personal honour. Dignity would have been prized above purity, and self-confidence above self-effacement. And not without some advantages to the community. In a society like theirs men are known for what they are; their prowess in battle and wisdom in affairs are open, recognisable qualities. There are no shelters available for the coward or the knave. In the dense thicket of present-day civilisation men may flourish without a single virtue. Every form of deceit, flattery, cunning, hypocrisy masquerades in the assembly, ‘the caterpillars of the commonwealth’ wax to great proportions, when in a viking society they would have been the thralls they should be. Who can assure us that Christianity will win all hearts? The world is not throughout animated by Christian principles, but by very different principles. It will prove a considerable undertaking to convert it. The Christians are out-numbered by many millions. In India under our government there are more Mahommedans than there are people in Great Britain. A great European country, Russia, has openly and officially rejected its ancient faith and espoused atheism. Our creed is there ridiculed in theatres and picture-houses. Mottoes are everywhere displayed which declare religion of any kind not merely absurd, but the chief enemy of human welfare and progress. ‘Give up fearing God, Brothers,’ ‘Religion is the opium of the people.’ The Chinese, a people of four hundred millions, are, and have always been, their historians tell us, atheists. The old pagan gods have risen from their graves, and are looking around them again in the world to-day. No, despite the idealists, who, in the interests of world unity, desire to submit our institutions to the jurisdiction of a League of Nations, or a Parliament of Man, I should myself be extremely reluctant to do so. I think we might be out-voted. And how distressing it would be if, in the sacred cause of world unity, we were requested to become Mahommedans, atheists or Hindus.
Even in countries where Christianity is still the nominal creed, it seems to be of a different brand from ours. ‘In Mexico you may see the parish priest coming out of church, after saying Mass, with a fighting cock under his arm, all ready for the fray.’ In some countries Christianity has acquired a distinctively Teutonic flavour. A German lady, writing to an American friend, after the events of June 30, 1934, exclaims, ‘Hitler has killed his friends for the sake of Germany, Isn’t he wonderful?’1 Wonderful perhaps, but government by assassination suggests a different variety of Christianity from that favoured in England. We are told by the same author of a German boy, whose prayer, on making his first communion, was ‘that he might die with a French bullet in his heart’. I fear he harboured some un-Christian sentiments, this lad. The differences among races will require a good deal of eradication. So passionate is the devotion in Spain to the bull-ring that Spanish writers have described the arena as ‘the sands of God’. Belmonte, its greatest matador, ‘stands’, we are told, ‘in this age for Spain, among the supreme tragic artists of his country.’ ‘Cervantes, Goya, Belmonte’, that is the company in which he is placed.
Do you disapprove? Then you do what that very great and very good man, Edmund Burke, declined to do. You draw up an indictment not against a single person, but against a whole people. Your moral sense is very properly outraged. I congratulate you on your moral superiority over a Christian nation of twenty millions. One thinks there must be more in it than you suppose, something not to be so summarily dismissed.
This matter of morals and moral indignation is of great interest. War, for example, arouses our sternest disapprobation, and we are clear that it should be abolished. But what about motor traffic? I submit that it, too, might be abolished. Motors are a very recent invention, and you cannot assert them a necessity of civilised life. Till a few years ago the world did very well without them. Wars are usually waged in some one’s interest, and for some sort of reason. Motors slay and wound on our streets and roads for no reason and in no one’s interest, not men only, but women and children in tens, in hundreds of thousands. This is ‘killing no murder’, war without declaration of war, this slaughter of our own kith and kin, 7000 done to death yearly and 230,000 maimed and injured. In seven years about 50,000 have been slain, and over a million and a quarter wounded in this country alone. It is all quite open and unabashed carnage. With what shuddering horror and indignation would this slaughter have been received as the result of an air raid! How are we to account for the marvellous placidity of our humanitarians? They never murmur. How easy, how desirable—a matter, indeed, of the utmost simplicity—to end by a single act of Parliament this hideous massacre. Have they ever advocated it? We have anti-war leagues and resolutions in plenty. I have not heard of any for the suppression of motors. How is this? Will some one be good enough to tell me why the one kind of killing is condoned, the other condemned? Is it because the pleasure and the profit of the one exceeds that of the other? Is it that moral sense must give way to convenience? Is it that the slaughter is not yet so excessive as in the late war? After all, there have only been over 15,000 children killed since the war, and only between 500 and 600 children killed so far this year. Will some one explain to me the absence of moral indignation in this matter? Will some one tell me why our merciful hearts are so hardened that this wholesale murdering of the innocents distresses them not at all, while the thought of war so afflicts them? I suggest the enquiry into the subject as an instructive occupation for the mind. If you undertake it, you will incidentally gain some insight into humbug and hypocrisy, into the dark region of human motives, of thought and conduct. Satan will be amused when you try to explain exactly why this state of things is tolerable and war intolerable. You will also learn how things which seem the easiest and the simplest to do, may yet be pretty difficult.
The doctrine of the perfectibility of the world is old. It is not, however, Christian doctrine, rather, as Schopenhauer perceived, it is radically irreligious. Men cannot get along without religion. If one is abandoned another is adopted. And all our humanitarianism, all our philanthropy and welfare work are efforts to fill the great spiritual void left by the decay of faith, drab substitutes for the older creed. The spirit of man craves a friendly God, and you give him economics. He asks for immortality, and you say, ‘Be content, here is beer and bacon.’ Since there is nothing beyond the present to be hoped for, let us make the only lives men will ever know less pitiably wretched. As the tide of religion has receded, the tide of this creed, the only alternative, it seems, has correspondingly risen. Miracles, once the province of the Church, will now be performed by the State, which will provide a heaven on earth, here and now. I am not to be understood as decrying humanity, kindness, philanthropy. These are no new things. They were not discovered yesterday. It is the gospel that is new. These things have always existed, and will continue to exist. There was plenty of kindness in the world, before it was set above the Olympian gods, above truth, and freedom and justice, before emotionalism was placed upon the throne of Zeus and took the wheel of the universe. In the new Garden of Eden, when we enter it, there will be good roads and water supply, unlimited picture houses, unstinted soft drinks, excellent sanitation, and humane slaughtering, the best of schools and wireless installations for everyone, free concerts and lectures for all. There will be no far horizons and invincible hopes. We shall cease to think of birth and death, of the infinite, of God, and the sublime secrets of the universe.
I am not much in love with these sixpenny Utopias. Men have other thoughts than these—thoughts that wander through eternity, and projects unattainable in time. How childish to think that the world’s griefs are all of economic origin. Our world planners have great designs for the filling of empty stomachs. Let them ponder the more intricate problem—the filling of empty hearts. The troubles of the world have by the brilliant diagnosticians, like Robespierre or Marx, been assigned to a great variety of causes. Landor thought the best initial step towards the amelioration of its sufferings would be ‘to strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest’, or vice-versa. The giant or dragon to be slain is differently pictured in different generations. In one age monarchs are declared the public enemy, in another the aristocrats, in another the bourgeois class, or the capitalists, the bankers or the Jews. The millennium is not yet, however, in sight.
And under whose leadership are we to advance towards it? There is never any lack of seedy reformers, ‘the Projectors and Schematists’, for whom Swift had such contempt, who suppose themselves entrusted with a divine mission for the betterment of the human lot, ‘sky-blue idealists’, as Carlyle called them, kind hearts and muddy understandings, ‘potato’ philosophers, who see their way to provide beef and beer, or preferably beef without beer, for everyone from East to West; the grass-green enthusiasts, who in their mind’s eye see men over all the earth sitting for ever at their cottage doors, festooned with ivy and honeysuckle; who are persuaded that if wars should cease, gambling be put down and love-making rendered respectable, if men in their more energetic moments were given a ball to play with, a harmless woolly ball, God would be better pleased.
The oyster-women locked their fish up
And trudged away to cry ‘no Bishop’.
Even morals become a nightmare when we reflect upon its self-appointed representatives. What sort of world would it be in which Wesleyanism or Anglicanism ruled the scene? in which throughout its breadth and length not a soul ever kicked over the social traces, in which there were no idlers, or spendthrifts, or jesters or Sir Fopling Flutters? Does anyone in his senses really wish for an undiluted respectability throughout eternity? A perfectly ordered world is not, though it may be to yours, to everyone’s mind. Some would prefer a disorderly as vastly more interesting, and a risky life as better worth living and infinitely more attractive. Must we look forward to wholly conventional lives, all alike, on the model of a colony of ants, in standardised buildings, with hot water provided, lifts and electric light, where all men think the same thoughts and pursue similar ends? If this be what is promised us, then indeed the life of all our blood
Is touched corruptibly, and the pure brain,
Which some suppose the soul’s frail dwelling-house,
Doth by the idle comments that it makes
Foretell the ending of mortality.
Science has worked wonders in our time, and may be confidently expected to work still greater wonders. The Utopian architects, as might have been anticipated, have turned to her genius for assistance and encouragement. If science be permitted to take matters in hand no bounds can be set, Professor Haldane assures us, to human progress. Diseases will, of course, be banished. Men, he predicts, ‘will be able to think like Newton, to write like Racine, to paint like the Van Eyks, to compose like Bach. They will be as incapable of hatred as St. Francis.’ Man’s life will probably be measured by thousands of years, ‘and every moment of his life will be lived with the passion of a lover or discoverer.’ One can see it will all be very wonderful. Professor Haldane is a man of science, the grand manner of the prophets sits well upon him, and I have no kind of claim to challenge his forecast of what science can perform. It may be that the Professor Haldanes of the future will be able to manufacture any kind of men to order, cynics or saints, chess-players or engineers, poets epic or lyrical, or any brand of humorist, philosopher, Adonis, or Admirable Crichton to suit the requirements of society. And what more could you want? Well, shall we say, for one thing, justice, a small matter which this programme does not include? Would you in possession of this heaven upon earth be content to forget the past sufferings of human kind? Would a happy lot for men and women to be some day born obliterate or compensate for all that the previous generations have endured? Do not these humanitarian schemes overlook, with a singular inhumanity, the millions who have perished without even a glimpse of the glories to come? They are of no account. Yet what have the new-comers done to deserve the felicity denied their predecessors, and will they be of any greater account when their day, too, has come?
Oh dreadful thought, if all our sires and we
Are but foundations of a race to be,—
Stones which one thrusts in earth, and builds thereon
A white delight, a Parian Parthenon,
And thither, long thereafter, youth and maid
Seek with glad brows the alabaster shade,
. . . . . . .
Not caring that those mighty columns rest
Each on the ruin of a human breast,—
That to the shrine the victor’s chariot rolls
Across the anguish of ten thousand souls!
The thoughts of our well-meaning reformers appear to be directed to one end only, the cessation of strife, and the consequent cessation of effort, for which there will no longer be any need. But how false it is to suppose that human beings desire unending ease, unthreatened safety, that their summum bonum is cushioned comfort, a folding of the hands to sleep. That way madness lies. What then is left to occupy their interest and attention? They desire rather difficulties, such is their nature, difficulties to elicit their powers, to keep them alert and wakeful. They wish to be alive. In the absence of resistance to desires, desires decay, and an intolerable, an appalling tedium invades the soul. Whose lives do we read with interest and admiration? The lives of men lapped in comfort from the cradle to the grave? Or of those who in the face of odds have accomplished their ends, good or bad? When the soul of man rises to its full stature, with what disdain does it regard the sweetmeats and the confectionery. In their anxiety for human welfare, in their collectivist schemes, the sentimentalists have overlooked the individual man. They submerge him in the sea of their universal benevolence? But who desires to live in the pauperdom of their charity? Every man desires to be his own architect, and the creator of his own design, the sentimentalist himself among the rest. And the last and greatest insult you can offer to the human race is to regard it as a herd of cattle to be driven to your selected pasture. You deprive the individual of his last rag of self-respect, the most precious of his possessions, himself. If you treat him as a thing, an inanimate object, which can be pushed hither and thither, if you treat him as one of a drove of oxen, you take away his birthright, and for this loss nothing can compensate him, not all the soothing syrups and honeys of the world.
To its eternal honour Christianity has stood steadfastly for the sanctity of the individual. To imprison the human spirit is the unpardonable sin, the attempt to make men automata, to force them into the same mould. No means will ever be found to induce human beings finally to surrender themselves, either body or soul, to a dictated felicity, to satisfactions chosen for them, whatever vulgar Caesars rule the world. And upon this rock all forms of regimentation, of standardised existence will eventually shipwreck. Every type of compulsion is hateful, always has been, and always will be hateful, as long as men are men. Was this freedom about which the poets have raved since the world began, for which men have died in millions, worth the bones of a single soldier? Have you ever asked yourself why men have fought for liberty? Not for amusement. Freedom they must have, whether they know or not what to do with it, freedom to choose cause or party, order or disorder, the good or the bad, to steer each his own vessel to the port of his desire. Take away his choice, and you make of him, for all your benevolent intentions, a chattel or a slave. There is a rebel in every man; men will revolt and demand again their freedom. As Dostoievsky expressed it, when everything is smooth and ordered and perfect, ‘in the midst of this universal reason there will appear all of a sudden and unexpectedly some common-faced, or rather cynical and sneering gentleman, who with his arms akimbo will say to us, “Now then, you fellows, what about smashing all this reason to bits, sending their logarithms to the devil, and living according to our own silly will?”’ And he will have followers in their thousands. Men desire the strangest and, in their neighbours’ eyes, the most incomprehensible, the most irrational, the most preposterous things.
The astonishing thing about the human being is not so much his intellect and bodily structure, profoundly mysterious as they are. The astonishing and least comprehensible thing about him is his range of vision; his gaze into the infinite distance; his lonely passion for ideas and ideals, far removed from his material surroundings and animal activities, and in no way suggested by them, yet for which, such is his affection, he is willing to endure toils and privations, to sacrifice pleasures, to disdain griefs and frustrations, for which, rating them in value above his own life, he will stand till he dies, the profound conviction he entertains that if nothing be worth dying for nothing is worth living for.
The inner truth is that every man is himself a creator, by birth and nature, an artist, an architect and fashioner of worlds. If this be madness—and if the universe be the machine some think it, a very ecstasy of madness it most manifestly is—none the less it is the lunacy in which consists the romance of life, in which lies our chief glory and our only hope.
- 1. European Journey, by Philip Gibbs.