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Part I

V: The Historical Scene

Strange is the vigour in a brave man’s soul. The strength of his spirit and his irresistible power, the greatness of his heart and the height of his condition, his mighty confidence and contempt of dangers, his true security and repose in himself, his liberty to dare and do what he pleaseth, his alacrity in the midst of fears, his invincible temper, are advantages which make him master of fortune. His courage fits him for all attempts, makes him serviceable to God and man, and makes him the bulwark and defence of his being and country.


Where lies the main issue with which we are concerned? Let us not lose sight of it. We desire, in Bacon’s words, ‘to arrive at a true knowledge of the universe in which we are.’ Of this universe man is a part, from his own standpoint, indeed, its absolute centre. What are we then, what kind of a being is man? Theories of human nature are plentiful, but theories elaborated in the study have no validity. Men themselves must be our teachers, men as they go about the world, and there reveal, naked and undisguised, the character of their species, in its motions, manners and actions. If we are to go to the root of things, it is not only the habits of nature we must study, but the habits of men. Of what value is any attempt to explain the world till you have faced the facts of the world? And in history you have a faithful mirror, which reflects the features of humanity. In this field of enquiry surmise and speculation are ruled out. As in the doings of nature, so in the doings of men you have an authentic document. There in their broad outline the behaviour and beliefs, the acts and undertakings of human beings are laid bare. We are not assailed by doubts, we are not in the region of arguments. These things have been believed, these things have indisputably been done. And when I speak of history, I do not mean local, or partial or contemporary history, but universal history. And looking over its scenes one is tempted to ask, ‘Is there anything ever new in it?’ Was Marcus Aurelius right when he said that a man of forty had seen all there was to see, past or to come? Perhaps, if an intelligent man or an emperor.

Before you sit down, then, surrounded by the books of the idealists, to write your attractive essay on aesthetics, or spiritual values, or Greek genius, it were well to walk abroad a little through the centuries, and to accommodate your mind to the bewildering variety the world exhibits, to a world, for example, of which a part practises monogamy, another polyandry, in which peoples have practised human sacrifice without reproach, exposed their children to death without reproach, where these things were not merely familiar and accepted customs, but religiously upheld and commanded. If an understanding of the Cosmos be your aim nothing can be omitted from the vast account. It will be necessary to extend your reading beyond the lives of saints and poets, of English worthies and leaders of science. You cannot draw conclusions about the universe from the inspection of a six-acre field. It will be necessary to look into the biographies of Oriental despots and ambitious conquerors, to know something of Attila and Hyder Ali, as well as of Socrates and Savonarola, to ponder the practices of New Guinea as well as New York, the pastimes, pleasures and superstitions of the human race throughout the ages. There have been Neros and Borgias and Torquemadas, there have been men like Caracalla, who did to death twenty thousand innocent persons of both sexes. Among the civilised Romans the families frequently shared the fate of men who had incurred the resentment of rulers. Among Orientals the monarch succeeding to power not uncommonly thought it wiser to hand over all his relatives to the executioner. When Ivan the Terrible, who did much for the arts and commerce of his country, sat upon the throne of Russia in the sixteenth century, he murdered whole families to gratify his whims. In torture he took delight, and in one day consigned to slaughter 15,000 of his own subjects, with every species of malignant cruelty. During his reign friends, women, children, innocent of any kind of offence, were thrown into dungeons, poisoned, beheaded, burned. How came God or nature to invest this Satan with imperial power? His later career was a furious tempest of insensate bloodshed, in which ingenuity exhausted itself in the contrivance of mutilations and devices to inflict suffering. ‘Beasts, misnamed men’, assisted to carry out his orders, driving their fellow creatures into lakes, into boiling caldrons, flaying and tormenting, so that the heart faints at the human agony wrought by this one man.

A madman, no doubt. But a single custom, approved by a community, may from century to century work greater havoc than the enormities of a despot. How comes a race to adopt a practice like child marriage? In India, where nineteen thousand children are born daily, rather more than a quarter die in infancy, more, that is, than 250 per thousand. In Paris it is 93 per thousand, in Berlin 88, in London 66. Of these Indian mothers, who become mothers before they have ceased to be children, three millions die annually in childbirth.

It is but a ripple on the mighty tide of life, which rolls remorselessly on. Do not let the armchair philosophers deceive you, nourished on ‘solemn vision and bright silver dream’, men who have been for the most part gentle and peace-loving persons, secluded from the tempestuous maelstrom of events, which constitute the story of humanity. ‘This man imagines’, said Cicero, on one occasion, ‘that he is living in the Republic of Plato, instead of in the days of that of Romulus;’ It was said of Pope that he mistook a coterie for mankind. And how easily all of us fall into the same error, thinking of the great world, past and present, as if it were a kind of enlarged copy of an English village. I do not commit myself with complete confidence to the philosophers when they expound to me the relations between the One and the Many; still less when they speak of human nature, not recognisable from their pictures of it. How pale their drawings appear beside the passions and intrigues, the hatreds and ambitions, the glitter, the pageantry and poverty of the vast panorama, ‘the perpetual, immense and innumerable goings on of the visible world’ (ex visibilium aeterno, immenso et irinumerabili effectu) in Bruno’s phrase.

Have they known and studied men who stop at nothing, men with boiling passions, so unlike their own mild preferences for tea over coffee, golf over cricket, or bridge over chess; men who have combined the finest taste and intelligence with utter ruthlessness, who were at once men of genius and without bowels? You prefer luke-warm emotions. The reformers have, indeed, a strong preference for tepid, anaemic folk. But do tepid emotions possess any driving force? To desire nothing at all was the Stoic prescription for the good life; to desire very little, and that half-heartedly, seems to be the panacea for the world’s ills recommended by our modern doctors. As if nature would consent to this damping down of her eternal fires, as if the cessation of desire, so exalted by the sages, were not another name for death, the veiled and circuitous route to nothingness. Nature has something to say as well as the philosophers. Recall and ponder the past. Have the motives and aims of men and women ever resembled those of our study thinkers? Have these speculators, sitting above the clouds, at any time seen jealousy, envy, hatred and revenge at work—revenge, one of the most powerful motives that ever swayed the human heart, ‘the sweetest morsel to the mouth’, in the words of Walter Scott, ‘that ever was cooked in hell’? Are these passions more than words to them? ‘A man of mild manners’, as said Hume, ‘can form no idea of inveterate revenge or cruelty.’ Have our philosophers, who deal in ethical theories, ever enquired into the souls of murderers and fanatics, of Mexicans and Peruvians, Aztecs and Polynesians, the thoughts of dancing dervishes, of Indian fakirs or Thibetan llamas, or tribesmen practising sorcery? Have they ever ‘shuddered at the millions, and immensities and secrets of India’? It would be difficult to invent a story too outrageous to command belief, a doctrine for which it would be impossible to obtain support, a proposal too grotesque to be anywhere entertained. There appears to be a maggot in every human brain. There was no need, Goethe thought, to visit a madhouse to find lunatics. So numerous are the illusions, frenzies, hallucinations afloat in the world that some thinkers have been of opinion that our planet was the asylum of the universe for disordered minds. It is not merely the things men say, and they are fantastic enough, it is the proposals they seriously advocate, the proceedings in which they actually engage. Read the anthropologists for the evidence. The Nestinari, the dancers upon fire, of Bulgaria, walk for ten or fifteen minutes on red-hot embers, passing twice over them to make the sign of the cross, in the belief that by so doing they bring health and prosperity to their community.

The delusions from which men suffer are beyond computation, and the eye which ranges over the historical landscape blenches at the superstitions, cults and rituals which contain for our intelligences no grain of sanity, and seem an outrage upon all reason. Some beliefs, indeed, amuse us. According to the ancients, to dream of sheep is good for scholars, lecturers and teachers; to dream of asses is harmless, mules vary, oxen are good, but goats are bad. One wonders how they made these discoveries. Olaus Magnus, Archbishop of Upsala in the sixteenth century, declared he had been an eye-witness of a Norwegian sea-serpent’s doings, which seized sheep as they browsed on a cliff a hundred feet above the sea, and swallowed ships, crews and all. Vossius, the Dutch scholar, advocated the execution of criminals in tragic plays to heighten the dramatic effect. In Russia at one time an attempt was made to put a stop to snuff-taking by slitting the nostrils of the rascals who practised it. There were Jacobins who wished to destroy the cathedral of Chartres, because it dominated too completely the republican town. Gandhi declared lately that ‘an advocate of non-violence, like myself, would die before killing rats’. This saintly man, who has the secret for putting the world to rights, would permit the rat and the louse to carry typhus through the world like a prairie fire, to the misery and death of millions. And this is holiness.

It is not only individuals who can lose their senses, and yet continue to find devoted followers. Whole cities have frequently fallen into religious convulsions, entire populations given themselves over to frantic debaucheries. If the historians are to be believed, the Jews in Cyrene slaughtered two hundred and twenty thousand Greeks, in Cyprus two hundred and forty thousand. They devoured the flesh of their victims, ‘licked up the blood and twisted their entrails like a girdle round their bodies.’

There is to-day much discussion of ‘values’ in the philosophical journals. But of whose values are these subtle disputants thinking? With values as estimated in Oxford, Valparaiso or Timbuctoo, as estimated by Indian widows flinging themselves upon the funeral pyres of their husbands, or frenzied mullahs, or Afridi snipers prowling round British encampments, or pilgrims on their way to Mecca, or Jews at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem? Mankind has been much given to massacres, and, if recorded, the catalogue of them would fill a volume. When the Tartars burnt Moscow in 1570 it is estimated that half a million perished in the flames and accompanying slaughter within three hours. They carried with them into slavery on their retreat a hundred thousand women. A supply of women was a customary article, a portion of the tribute in the treaties between the Chinese and the Huns. A bird’s-eye view of history does not present our species in a very favourable light. Wholesale butcheries, cities sacked and sown with salt, are among its commonplace occurrences. Lord Snowden recently described the Great War as the greatest act of human folly in history. He must have been reading Stories for Little Arthur.

Religion itself, Christianity itself, so far from presenting a picture of friendliness and charity in a fierce and warring world, introduces us to a narrative of jarring sects, furious controversies and revolting persecutions. During three centuries three hundred thousand persons were put to death for their religious opinions in Madrid alone. ‘O Liberty,’ exclaimed Madame Roland on the scaffold, ‘what crimes have been committed in thy name!’ Might she not with equal truth have said ‘O Religion’? In the opinion of Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the fifth century, the number of Christian bishops who would be saved bore a very small proportion to those who would be damned. Is it surprising that some have believed that a malignant demon sat by the cradle of the unhappy human race? ‘Man’, said Pascal, ‘is an incomprehensible monster.’ Byron is not more complimentary. He is ‘a two-legged reptile, crafty and venomous.

You comfort yourself, no doubt, that these enormities are of ancient date, and now impossible. Not so. They are easily matched among Christian peoples within the lifetime of the youngest of us. I am not thinking of the daily murders in the centres of modern civilisation. There were 12,000 in the United States in 1930. I am not thinking of Turkey’s record within the last twenty years. Come nearer home, and read, read for yourselves, the documented account of the doings of the German armies among the civilian population of Belgium. ‘It contains a body of authentic and overwhelming evidence’—I quote from Mons. Maeterlinck—‘upon the massacres at Ardenne, Dinant, Louvain and Aerschot, which enables history here and now to pronounce its verdict with even greater certainty than the most scrupulous jury of a criminal court.’ The last fifty or sixty years have been as rich in assassinations of public men as any in the past. Fourteen kings and ruling princes, six presidents—of the United States, France and other countries—besides many viceroys, prime ministers and ministers.

Why do I recall circumstances so depressing? Merely because, in my judgment, indisputable matter has the priority over dialectical exchanges. It does not seem to me irrelevant, however strangely it sounds in the great debate on faith and morals, to remember, more especially when we are lecturing our neighbours after our national manner, that the Liverpool merchant not so long ago, sold three hundred thousand slaves within ten or twelve years to the West Indies, for fifteen million pounds, or that Sir John Hawkins kidnapped natives in West Africa for the trade in negroes, in his ship, the Jesus. The effect of civilised man’s intrusion into uncivilised lands, whether with selfish or unselfish intentions, has not been in the main to their benefit, but rather to their ruin. Assassination of rivals, a method of government hoary with age, and not ineffective, is still employed in countries which stand at the head of Western civilisation. ‘Count Borgia’, wrote a recent historian, Mr. F. S. Oliver, ‘slew his thousands, the Terror its tens of thousands, Lenin his hundreds of thousands,’ and adds the following note—‘Strictly speaking, the statement should be “millions” instead of hundreds of thousands,’ and cites from Sarolea’s Impressions of Soviet Russia:

‘“A Russian statistical investigation estimates that the Dictator killed 28 bishops, 1219 priests, 6000 professors and teachers, 9000 doctors, 54,000 officers, 260,000 soldiers, 70,000 policemen, 355,250 intellectuals and professional men, 193,000 workers, 815,000 peasants.”’ That is about 1,750,000 were executed or massacred. In addition the same writer seems to be of the opinion that some 18 millions died of famine, a famine that Lenin had it in his power greatly to mitigate, if not altogether to prevent, but which he deliberately allowed to rage. The diminution of the Russian population during the period of his dictatorship would appear to have been about 12 1/2 per cent.1 Is Lenin execrated? Not at all. He is revered as the saviour of his country, and his tomb is visited by multitudes of pilgrims, as if it were that of a saint.

This is the kind of material with which the historian provides you. Mark now the philosopher’s way of thought. ‘Evil’, announces Spinoza in his Ethics, with much geometrical parade, ‘Evil is nothing positive.’ It is well to have it from so widely worshipped an authority, a leader in Israel. How blue and cloudless is his sky! What healing balm is here offered us! ‘A little water’, as Lady Macbeth remarked of the murder of Duncan, ‘A little water clears us of this deed.’ As the medieval exorcist scattered legions of devils with a sprinkling of holy water and a formula, so our philosopher puts to flight the agonies, the inhumanities, the plagues and cruelties of the world with a single word—‘Evil is nothing positive.’ They vanish into the limbo of the negative, and our anxieties are at an end. For my part I prefer the old-fashioned Bishop Butler, who held the childlike opinion—‘Everything is what it is, and not another thing.’ When philosophers begin to substitute words for things one tires of their company. When we have enumerated the catastrophes by famine, flood and earthquake, from the spasms of the fevered earth, and they have not been few—in a single year half a million died of the ulcerous plague in North-Eastern Russia; and the victims of the Black Death are estimated to have numbered 37 millions in the East, and during one visitation over 3 millions in England alone, that is from one-third to a half of the entire population of that time—we have still to record Gibbon’s opinion that ‘man has much more to dread from the passions of his fellow creatures than from the convulsions of the elements’. Gibbon was very possibly a prejudiced witness. Whatever be the truth, you must ascribe responsibility for our earthly ills either to nature or to man. There appears to be no other alternative. And when we look

over wasted lands

Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,

Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships and praying hands,

the blame, if blame there be, should, on the face of it, be pretty equally distributed.

The pugnacity of the human species is in especial the target of the moralists. And certainly war has been its great industry. Napoleon invaded Russia with 600,000 men. Fifty thousand fell at Borodino, twenty thousand at the crossing of the Beresina. A thousand of the Old Guard returned. As Byron wrote of Acro-Corinth, which rises above the Isthmus to a height of nearly 2000 feet—

Or could the bones of all the slain

Who perished there, be piled again,

That rival pyramid would rise

More mountain-like through those clear skies

Than yon tower-capp’d Acropolis

Which seems the very clouds to kiss.

Abolish war, say our humanitarians, and you have abolished the worst feature among the rivalries of mankind. Reflect a moment, however, and you discover that you but drive these rivalries into another channel, in which the sufferings inflicted are, indeed, masked, but little diminished. Economic competition remains, waged with an easy conscience and no danger, a less noble form of war, yet as ruthless and merciless. Capture a people’s markets, and you strike at its life. Where should we be if ours were captured? War is more dramatic and spectacular, but slow, grinding starvation wields no less deadly a sword. Between four and five millions perished from famine and attendant causes in Russia in 1933, and the world was quite unruffled, though no year of the great war had such a crop of victims.

It is the fecundity of nature against which our moralists should direct their indignation. Nature is the enemy. I have read that the bodies of over 30,000 infants are picked up every year in the streets of Shanghai. Until the reformers have found some means of restraining that fecundity, of reducing Nature’s vast populations, these living creatures can hardly be expected to lay aside their weapons, whatever they are; they will continue to exert all their efforts to remain alive. And not men only. All living things multiply as long as they can find sustenance. The rabbit would overrun the earth if not checked. The progeny of a few musk rats, introduced from Alaska a few years since, have cost millions to destroy. If you dislike slaughter you must shut against animals, as against men, the portals of existence. Establish birth control universally among both, and your aim may be secured, but not till then.

And when this has been said, all has not yet been said. ‘It is well that war is so terrible,’ said General Lee, watching the great charge at Friedericksburg; ‘we should grow too fond of it.’ ‘War’, as De Quincey said, ‘has a deeper and more ineffable relation to hidden grandeurs in man than has yet been deciphered.’ And men may remain fond of it, as of all adventure with death in the balance. The romance of war may be dead. Its grim and ugly countenance has grown uglier still and grimmer. Yet when men rise in their stirrups, like Cromwell, on the dawn of a great encounter, will not their blood run faster? When mighty issues are at stake will they remain unmoved? Or are there never again to be any issues of consequence? There will, then, be no more nailing of colours to the mast. No colours will be worth nailing at the cost of human life. Never again will the cry be heard, ‘Truth, freedom and justice though the heavens fall!’

I find it difficult to accept these propositions, nor should I care to belong to a society which accepted them. Certainly it would be a remarkable transformation. We should not know ourselves when it came about. We should not recognise human nature in the days of the great indifference to the old values held sacred through the centuries. I may, indeed, be wrong, but to me it seems that if there be anything at all, and many arguments have been advanced to prove that there is nothing at all, but if there be anything at all to distinguish man from the brutes, to lay the foundation for his superior dignity, it is his very singular faith in absolute and eternal values, against which he holds, or used to hold, nothing could be set, and nothing was of any weight, neither his own life nor that of others. Perhaps it was all a foolishness. But this foolishness had at least a regal manner, a style. It had an air, this creed of values above life’s value. You could hardly refuse to admire the princely gait and presence of the folly, so high it carried its head among the cunning bargainers, hucksterers and investors, the astute and slippery profiteers of the world’s markets and bazaars. Nor is life a great price to pay, so beset, as it is, with ills, and so fragile its crystal vase. Of creatures like ourselves earth has spawned millions upon millions. Of their passage across the stage they have left—the majority—no trace. A million die every month in China alone. Who misses them? Visit the valley of the Nile, that vast sepulchre, where for millenniums men have risen out of the dust, like blades of grass, to return again to dust. ‘They were and are not,’ their only epitaph.

Foreigners express astonishment at the insularity of English thought. I share it. We in these thrice fortunate isles, where a sum approaching five hundred millions is spent annually on social services, never so much as dreamt of in any other age or country, inhabit Paradise without being aware of it. Yet I find in myself a greater astonishment at the remoteness of philosophers from the world in which they live. One wishes they would thumb the leaves of the historical record before they constructed their admirable theories. They should, after the manner of the artists, have made some preliminary studies. They should have cultivated the acquaintance of plotters and revolutionaries, of angry souls in underground dwellings. They would write more convincingly if they had consorted, even in imagination, with cave-dwellers, and lake-dwellers, and tree-dwellers, talked with buffoons, and mountebanks, and charlatans, with sadists and pimps and procurers, as well as with priests, prophets and professors. They might have learnt something from the cynics as well as the logicians, from vikings as well as Christians, from corsairs and courtesans as well as from philanthropists, from berserker fighters, stark men, quicker with a blow than a word, whose joy was more in the argument of steel with steel than of sentence with sentence, who thought death in battle, ‘with heroes’ hot corpses high heaped for a pillow’, the only form of death worthy of a man.

A straw death, a cow death,

Such death suits not me.

What have Hegel or Kant to say of such people, or the structure of their minds? It is well to keep the world as it was, and is, always in sight, with its conflicting aims and purposes, its roystering and carousing, as well as its church-going; its gambling and fiddling and cock-fighting, as well as ploughing and praying; its jesting and quarrelling and jobbery and money-lending and love-making, as well as its decencies and respectabilities.

If you ask, What have been the occupations and interests of men, the pursuits of their leisure?—you will learn something. Read for your instruction the ditties that are not to be found in the school anthologies.

To keep game cocks,

To hunt the fox,

To drink in punch the Solway;

With debts galore,

But fun far more,

Oh! that’s the man for Galway!

If you wish to know your world, enquire into its luxuries and frivolities. Where the heart is, there the money goes. The extravagances of Oriental monarchs and Roman emperors are a proverb. ‘The number of eunuchs in the palace of Constantius’, relates Gibbon, ‘could only be compared with the insects of a summer’s day.’ The Emperor Vitellius consumed in eating, we are told, six millions of money in seven months. Rome sent a million of money annually to the East for jewelry, perfumes and spices in Pliny’s time. Large though it seems, a comparison of such expenditure with the present day might not be much to our advantage.

It was a source of sorrow to Prynne, the seventeenth-century Puritan—whose incessant and tiresome activities led Charles II to propose that he should be ‘kept busy by letting him write against the Catholics and pore over the records of the Temple’—that Shakespere’s plays were ‘printed on the best crown paper, far better than most Bibles’. He was distressed to horror when told that in two years 40,000 play books were sold, they being more vendible ‘than the choicest sermons’. In this year of grace he would, I fear, be sunk in still deeper dejection. The world has from the beginning been the despair of moralists, rari nantes in gurgite vasto, lost amid the prodigious variety of human beings, their motives, manners and pursuits, through the fifty centuries of which any record remains. To ask men to live contrary to their natures is to ask the shark to live in the forest, or the eagle under the water. It would be an enquiry of interest how far Kant’s moral imperative has been the catechism of the race, of the two thousand million of our present fellow creatures, feverishly engaged in extracting from life whatever in the way of satisfaction it may afford. How far do his ethical principles govern society even in our advanced civilisation? ‘As for us,’ said Trotsky, ‘we were never concerned about the Kantian, priestly, and vegetarian Quaker prattle about the sacredness of human life.’ How jubilant would be our reformers if enthusiasm for the Kantian categorical imperative prevailed in the same degree as for sport in any of its forms, football, racing, motoring, golf. When the theorists set out to construct their Utopias one wonders where they will find the men and women willing to inhabit them. Are they all to be listless, docile folk, without passions, who read instructive books, and desire hidden and sheltered lives, who live, if they can be said to live at all, like plants, as pulseless and inoffensive an existence as the flowers of the field?

As in the atom the explosive energy of nature is locked up in a minute finite centre, so in the individual burns a flame kindled in her furnace. If by morals we mean—and how often it seems to mean little else—a reduction of nature’s temperature, morality must fail, if virtue consists in desiring little, and that little without enthusiasm, if the acme of goodness is inactivity. If we hope to save the world by lowering its vitality, we have in nature a formidable antagonist, if we hope to build Jerusalem by drawing the hot blood from the veins of men. Nature is herself vitality. When your vitality fails, when life disappoints or proves too much for you, when you no longer care much for anything, or despair of obtaining what you wish, when you are ill, when you tire and weary of the struggle—then, indeed, you sum up against existence; seldom when the blood flows, when hopes are high and the heart beats strongly.

Human annals may make dismal reading, but their fascination remains. And in the end, say what you will, the pageant of human life has for the observer a great, if gloomy, magnificence. With no friends save his own indomitable spirit, man has made his way through the long centuries. Distressed, defeated, deceived, he continues to undertake his forlorn hopes and pursue his fantastic loyalties. Who would abate, wherever they lead, his resolution, his willingness to dare the wrath whether of gods or men, his refusal to count the cost?

Human sentiment has always honoured men cast in the heroic mould, the strong men of their hands, even when their careers, like those of Alexander and Caesar, the limits of whose fame are the stars, brought death to thousands, even when they waded through blood to the goal of their desires. How is this? It is strength we admire, strength which seems to reflect something of its splendour upon the whole human family. Men have always admired others whom no fears could terrify or distract from their purposes, no horrors tame, who accepted for themselves wounds and death rather than the relinquishment of their designs, who burned their boats, for whom retreat was more bitter than destruction. Great deeds are not done by desiring nothing.

To dwell upon man’s destroying propensities, as if they constituted his whole history, were indeed an absurd falsification of the record, to think of him as wholly occupied in scattering firebrands and death. His inventive and architectural faculties are equally in evidence. If he has made wars he has also founded empires, laws and constitutions, the arts of government and peace. Like his Mother Nature he both makes and unmakes. He is, like her, Janus-headed. He is statesman and soldier, builder and destroyer, explorer and merchant, pirate, poet and artist. He is composed of ‘fleeting opposites’, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, idealist dreamer and practical planner in one. Think of his heart-breaking labours, astounding enterprise, fierce industry and indefatigable toil. ‘The history of navigation’, for example, it has been said, ‘is a history of human martyrdom.’ Think of the farming and building, the journeying and the voyaging, the caravans and trade routes through deserts and over mountains, of ‘many an old captain hoisting out many an old barrel on to many an old slip’—all in the midst of perils, all at the cost of anxiety and hardship; and your wonder and admiration will drown your censures. Who but men have crossed, sounded and charted the oceans, explored the Arctic and Antarctic poles, conquered sea and air, constructed great scientific and philosophical systems, built temples and cathedrals, written poems, dramas and romances, composed music, carved statues, painted pictures, constructed machinery, harnessed the unseen powers of nature, invented medicine and surgery? And has all this been done by saints and ascetics? Have the rough-riders, the vagabonds, the reckless ragamuffins not had a hand in it, and should it not be counted to them for righteousness? These are questions to be pondered.

And still another. Was it all, or was it not, worth doing, or would it have been better to live in the Garden of Eden cultivating roses for ever? At least, through all the inclement weather of the world, arts and crafts have been invented, cultures established, nature explored. Justice and sense have not perished out of the earth. The voyage has had its interests and incidents. The ship of humanity has not foundered in the gales.

And science? However you regard her attitude and aims, deplore her emphasis upon the body rather than the soul, you cannot deny the benefits she has conferred upon humanity. True it is that worldliness has under her regime superseded other-worldliness, that as one of her representatives, Professor Hogben, claims, ‘our expectation of life has increased as we have learnt to worry less about the good life than about the good drain.’ Yet so impressive, so far-reaching are her achievements as not merely to silence all criticism but to arouse a noble enthusiasm, and enlist in the cause of humanity a legion of recruits, missionaries of her gospel. Take modern medicine alone, the child of science, the most promising and brightest-eyed of her family. If it has not mastered, it has so diminished as to rob bodily pain of its terrors. Plagues and pestilences have been stayed, a multitude of diseases—diphtheria, rabies, smallpox, typhus, yellow-fever, Maltese fever—to name only a few—almost exterminated. Great scourge-ridden tracts of the earth’s surface rendered habitable, food values understood, vaccines and anti-toxins discovered, antiseptic surgery so established as to open up new fields of remedial agency, ailments of the mind as well as of the body controlled and relieved. This is a record, indeed, to which no previous age in history can produce a parallel. Within a century the expectation of life in all civilised countries has amazingly increased—in our own by sixteen years, in Denmark by seventeen, in parts of America by fifteen. Give to man and to his science their due. Who can be blind to such facts, or deaf to their eloquence?

That there have been accompanying disadvantages cannot be denied. All goods are associated with evils, and nature will not let us rest. A static world it is not, never was and never will be. There have been revolutions in the past, there will be revolutions hereafter, in the world of thought as in the world of events. We must expect the sudden and unpredictable. You may desire a stabilised system, an international agreement to keep things much as they are in respect of national boundaries, material advantages in wealth, coal, oil, trade facilities. It will not be given you. For all your entreaties the world will not cease to revolve. Nature is no friend of stagnation. Climates change, economic conditions change, birth rates rise and fall, labour is cheap here and dear there, a new invention, a new commodity is in demand, and cities spring up to meet it. Factories are built, uninhabited areas become crowded, peoples migrate, once populous districts are deserted. The seats of ancient empires are lost in the desert or the jungle.

‘My name is Ozymandias, King of kings;

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

They will remain to haunt us, the mutability, the eternal flux, the ceaseless hostilities, the crooked ways of nature. The lovely has in her domain no priority over the vile, nor wisdom any advantage over folly in respect of its enduring date. Individuals, races, cultures, high or low, all obey the same law. They have their youth and age, flower and decay. Some perish in childhood, some are crippled by accident or disease, some attain power and place, confer benefits upon, or bring ruin to their neighbours. We can see no logic in it. There is no circumstance in the lives of individual men you will not find written large in the history of peoples and civilisations. And as no one can tell us why we grow old, stiffen and die, save that such is the rhythm of existence, so the rise and fall of nations and states is similarly mysterious. The words ‘Destiny’ and ‘Fate’, as rulers of mortal things, once so common, so continuously in the thoughts of reflective folk, like the Greeks or the Northmen, are seldom heard to-day. But their mighty power is not abated, they have not resigned from their imperial thrones.

In these circumstances, you may ask, Is anything worth undertaking in the world at all? Well, whether existence have meaning and value, or have none, here we certainly are, we living creatures. And the first and unescapable question for Christianity, as indeed for all men, is the simple question of acceptance or rejection of life, not as you would like it to be, but as it is, under the conditions which prevail, of life as universally experienced, as it has been lived from age to age. To hope for its alteration, for its acceptance of our pattern, the pattern of behaviour we prefer and prescribe, is a rainbow vision. Tell us, then, whether Christianity stands for living in the present world or against it, for participation or withdrawal, for action or quietism, for taking a share in the shaping of history, in its multifarious and dubious undertakings, a hand in the game, or refusing it. Throughout the history of the Church there has been a halting between two opinions, for co-operation and for withdrawal. It appears improbable that the future will permit the compromise. Denunciations are in vain, complaints against men and nations are in vain. And if the decision be to go down into the turbulent arena of human affairs, we may say, paraphrasing a famous passage of Lucan, that it will be with iron, and not with prayers we shall settle this war, and whether a man shall live or die. As for England and ourselves—

Time, and the ocean, and some favouring star,

In high cabal have made us what we are.

Our vigorous and valiant ancestors—perhaps they were too vigorous and valiant—had imperial dreams, and committed us to the rule of half the world, for which we have no longer any relish. Is it our duty to defend and maintain this heritage, or to relinquish it? And if we relinquish it, will it pass into cleaner hands, and mankind be better served? ‘In every part of the world where British interests are at stake’, said Dicey, ‘I am in favour of advancing those interests even at the cost of war.’ There is a refreshing decision about this declaration. Right or wrong, there at least spoke a man. To succeed in life you must believe in life. Horror and dismay are no helpmates in a battle. Empires like our own, which disseminate ideas, which impose themselves upon and influence the world, how could they accomplish what they have in fact accomplished without the will, the resolution and the power to do so? How can doubt, hesitation, absence of belief in your mission strengthen your hands, or how can soul sickness, hatred of life’s conditions, disgust of the conflict enable you to play a leading part in the shaping of the future? If men and nations do not find life worth the living, or what it offers worth possessing, it is very certain nature will replace them by others who do. If an individual or a people ceases to believe in itself, its aims and ideals, others with firmer aims and beliefs will climb into the saddle. When a race or nation no longer desires place, power, position, influence, has no wish that its ways of thought should prevail, no desire to impress its seal upon future events, how can you suppose it will continue to stand in this hurly-burly world? Power in the world, the prizes of the world, must go to those who value them, and think them worth the effort to secure.

Civilisations arise, and continue to exist—and all history is the witness to the truth—when conditions are hard, only when they are continually threatened, only when they are determined to maintain and defend their rule. They decline and fall when the external pressure is removed, or the inner spirit decays. The surrender may disguise itself in many forms, of which humanitarian sentiment is one. ‘If a country’, wrote F. S. Oliver, ‘will not stand up for its rights, it must surely lose them: The spirit of giving in is the most fatal disease to which nations are subject, and it is apt to attack them, like a cancer, when they have arrived at the meridian.’ You may, indeed, conclude that you will have neither part nor lot in the rivalry, you may wash your hands of responsibility for the madness and folly of mankind, you may renounce the contests, and refuse the challenges of ambitious competitors for your place and power, you may elect to leave its future to the bullies of the world. But it should be obvious that if the heart be set on nothing the earth contains or offers, nothing in the manner of the earth will be done there.

When England’s day comes to an end the principles which have contributed to its coming, Christian, pacifist, or whatever they may be styled, will not thereby be strengthened. On the contrary, such is the irony which pervades things human, they will have brought about their own eclipse, their own dissolution, and the triumph of the opposing principles. The decline and fall of England, which will rejoice her enemies, will not be England’s decline and fall only, but of all for which she stood, and not till then shall we know the extent of our miseries. I, at least, am not of the opinion that humanity, justice, freedom, no, nor Christianity, will be gainers in that fall.

  • 1. The Endless Adventure, p. 70.
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