On Thomas Carlyle

As a thinker Carlyle is not sad, but recklessly and rather unscrupulously satisfied. For he seems to have held the theory that good could not be definitely defeated in this world; and that everything in the long run finds its right level. It began with what we may call the “Bible of History” idea: that all affairs and politics were a clouded but unbroken revelation of the divine. Thus any enormous and unaltered human settlement—as the Norman Conquest or the secession of America—we must suppose to be the will of God. It lent itself to picturesque treatment; and Carlyle and the Carlyleans were above all things picturesque. It gave them at first a rhetorical advantage over the Catholic and other older schools. They could boast that their Creator was still creating; that he was in Man and Nature, and was not hedged round in a Paradise or imprisoned in a pyx. They could say their God had not grown too old for war: that He was present at Gettysburg and Gravelotte as much as at Gibeon and Gilboa.

I do not mean that they literally said these particular things: they are what I should have said had I been bribed to defend their position. But they said things to the same effect: that what manages finally to happen, happens for a higher purpose. Carlyle said the French Revolution was a thing settled in the eternal councils to be; and therefore (and not because it was right) attacking it was “fighting against God.” And Kingsley even carried the principle so far as to tell a lady she should remain in the Church of England mainly because God had put her there. But in spite of its superficial spirituality and encouragement, it is not hard to see how such a doctrine could be abused. It practically comes to saying that God is on the side of the big battalions—or at least, of the victorious ones. Thus a creed which set out to create conquerors would only corrupt soldiers; corrupt them with a craven and unsoldierly worship of success: and that which began as the philosophy of courage ends as the philosophy of cowardice. If, indeed, Carlyle were right in saying that right is only “rightly articulated” might, men would never articulate or move in any way.

The fallacy of this whole philosophy is that if God is indeed present at a modern battle, He may be present not as on Gilboa but Golgotha.

– The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).
Published in: on April 9, 2014 at 6:53 am  Leave a Comment  

Equality and authority

It is impossible to have spiritual equality without a spiritual authority, just as it is impossible to have legal equality without a legal authority. For equality is not a chaos; it is a rank.

– The Illustrated London News, 13 January 1912.

Published in: on April 2, 2014 at 2:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Fancy himself in Elysium”

It is a monotonous memory which keeps us in the main from seeing things as splendid as they are. The ancients were not wrong when they made Lethe the boundary of a better land; perhaps the only flaw in their system is that a man who had bathed in the river of forgetfulness would be as likely as not to climb back upon the bank of the earth and fancy himself in Elysium.

– The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on March 26, 2014 at 11:04 am  Leave a Comment  

On John Henry Newman

Whatever else is right, the theory that Newman went over to Rome to find peace and an end of argument, is quite unquestionably wrong. He had far more quarrels after he had gone over to Rome. But, though he had far more quarrels, he had far fewer compromises: and he was of that temper which is tortured more by compromise than by quarrel.

He was a man at once of abnormal energy and abnormal sensibility: nobody without that combination could have written the Apologia. If he sometimes seemed to skin his enemies alive, it was because he himself lacked a skin. In this sense his Apologia is a triumph far beyond the ephemeral charge on which it was founded; in this sense he does indeed (to use his own expression) vanquish not his accuser but his judges. Many men would shrink from recording all their cold fits and hesitations and prolonged inconsistencies: I am sure it was the breath of life to Newman to confess them, now that he had done with them for ever. His Lectures on the Present Position of English Catholics, practically preached against a raging mob, rise not only higher but happier, as his instant unpopularity increases. There is something grander than humour, there is fun, in the very first lecture about the British Constitution as explained to a meeting of Russians. But always his triumphs are the triumphs of a highly sensitive man: a man must feel insults before he can so insultingly and splendidly avenge them. He is a naked man, who carries a naked sword.

The quality of his literary style is so successful that it succeeds in escaping definition. The quality of his logic is that of a long but passionate patience, which waits until he has fixed all corners of an iron trap. But the quality of his moral comment on the age remains what I have said: a protest of the rationality of religion as against the increasing irrationality of mere Victorian comfort and compromise. So far as the present purpose is concerned, his protest died with him: he left few imitators and (it may easily be conceived) no successful imitators.

– The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).
Published in: on March 20, 2014 at 12:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Fables and Fairy Tales

The fable and the fairy tale are things utterly distinct. There are many elements of difference; but the plainest is plain enough. There can be no good fable with human beings in it. There can be no good fairy tale without them.

Aesop, or Babrius (or whatever his name was), understood that, for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked. The sheep in a fable must march on, as the pawn in chess must march on. The fable must not allow for the crooked captures of the pawn; it must not allow for what Balzac called “the revolt of a sheep.” The fairy tale, on the other hand, absolutely revolves on the pivot of human personality. If no hero were there to fight the dragons, we should not even know that they were dragons. If no adventurer were cast on the undiscovered island—it would remain undiscovered. If the miller’s third son does not find the enchanted garden where the seven princesses stand white and frozen—why, then, they will remain white and frozen and enchanted. If there is no personal prince to find the Sleeping Beauty she will simply sleep. Fables repose upon quite the opposite idea; that everything is itself, and will in any case speak for itself. The wolf will be always wolfish; the fox will be always foxy.

– Introduction to Aesop’s Fables (1912).

Published in: on March 12, 2014 at 9:21 pm  Comments (1)  

“A mob of hermits”

For this modern idea that sanctity is identical with secrecy, there is one thing at least to be said. It is for all practical purposes an entirely new idea; it was unknown to all the ages in which the idea of sanctity really flourished. The record of the great spiritual movements of mankind is dead against the idea that spirituality is a private matter. The most awful secret of every man’s soul, its most lonely and individual need, its most primal and psychological relationship, the thing called worship, the communication between the soul and the last reality—this most private matter is the most public spectacle in the world. Anyone who chooses to walk into a large church on Sunday morning may see a hundred men each alone with his Maker. He stands, in truth, in the presence of one of the strangest spectacles in the world—a mob of hermits. And in thus definitely espousing publicity by making public the most internal mystery, Christianity acts in accordance with its earliest origins and its terrible beginning. It was surely by no accident that the spectacle which darkened the sun at noonday was set upon a hill.

– The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on March 5, 2014 at 6:37 am  Leave a Comment  

“Extending the gardens”

Real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road, but drawing life from them, as from a root. Even when we improve we never progress. For progress, the metaphor from the road, implies a man leaving his home behind him: but improvement means a man exalting the towers or extending the gardens of his home.

– The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).

Published in: on February 26, 2014 at 11:16 am  Comments (1)  

“A wall of pebbles”

If the mass of citizens are to rule, it is absolutely necessary that they should have very strong common principles of thought. Where the State is ruled by a few wills (as of a king or nobles) its action and unity is preserved by the mere helplessness of the other parts. But if it is to be ruled by a great number of wills, these must have had some standard which they regard as orthodoxy, or, at least, as common sense. That is behind the half-truth of those who say that art and science (at least the wilder sorts) flourish better under an aristocracy. A certain sort of looseness cannot be permitted in a democracy. A wall can be built of large loose rocks, because there are few of them. But if you want to build a wall of pebbles you must have a very strong cement.

– The Illustrated London News, 13 January 1912.

Published in: on February 19, 2014 at 6:47 am  Comments (1)  

“A worm and a god”

If we are to save the oppressed, we must have two apparently antagonistic emotions in us at the same time. We must think the oppressed man intensely miserable, and at the same time intensely attractive and important. We must insist with violence upon his degradation; we must insist with the same violence upon his dignity. For if we relax by one inch the one assertion, men will say he does not need saving. And if we relax by one inch the other assertion, men will say he is not worth saving. The optimists will say that reform is needless. The pessimists will say that reform is hopeless. We must apply both simultaneously to the same oppressed man; we must say that he is a worm and a god; and we must thus lay ourselves open to the accusation (or the compliment) of transcendentalism. This is, indeed, the strongest argument for the religious conception of life.

– Charles Dickens (1906).

Published in: on February 12, 2014 at 7:54 am  Leave a Comment  

“The breaking of a sword”

The large number of divorces in America is a matter of grave distress to the most public-spirited Americans, but not to Professor George Elliott Howard, as quoted in Munsey’s Magazine. It is an “incident,” according to Professor George Elliott Howard, “an incident in the mighty process of spiritual liberation, which is rapidly changing the relative positions of men and women in society and the family.”

I do not suggest that the Professor would say in so many words that the less husbands and wives could put up with each other the better; or that the happiest society would be a perpetual succession of unhappy families. But there is an unconscious sentiment of that sort behind all this way of talking about the spiritual liberation of sex.

All the talk about freedom in this connection is utterly out of place: because marriage itself is an act of freedom and responsibility; and the desertion of it is the desertion of one’s self; and is always at least humiliating. Even if divorce is not a sin, it is most certainly a disgrace. It is not like the breaking of a chain, which has been forcibly imposed upon a slave. It is like the breaking of a sword, that has been deliberately taken up and deliberately dishonoured by a traitor.

– The Illustrated London News, 25 January 1913.

Published in: on February 5, 2014 at 12:54 pm  Comments (1)  

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