“What has happened in English history”

We should think it rather odd if a profiteer had a country house that was called The Cathedral.  We might think it strange if a stockbroker had built a villa and habitually referred to it as a church.  But we can hardly see the preposterous profanity by which one chance rich man after another has been able to commandeer or purchase a house which he still calls an Abbey. It is precisely as if he had gone to live in the parish church; had breakfasted on the altar, or cleaned his teeth in the font. That is the short and sharp summary of what has happened in English history; but few can get it thus foreshortened or in any such sharp outline.

— William Cobbett (1925).

Published in: on August 1, 2018 at 11:29 am  Leave a Comment  

“Almost certain of being wrong”

We cannot be certain of being right about the future; but we can be almost certain of being wrong about the future, if we are wrong about the past.

What I Saw In America (1921).

Published in: on July 25, 2018 at 2:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Optimists are more practical reformers”

In order that men should resist injustice, something more is necessary than that they should think injustice unpleasant. They must think injustice absurd; above all, they must think it startling. They must retain the violence of a virgin astonishment. That is the explanation of the singular fact which must have struck many people in the relations of philosophy and reform. It is the fact (I mean) that optimists are more practical reformers than pessimists. Superficially, one would imagine that the railer would be the reformer; that the man who thought that everything was wrong would be the man to put everything right. In historical practice the thing is quite the other way; curiously enough, it is the man who likes things as they are who really makes them better.

The optimist Dickens has achieved more reforms than the pessimist Gissing. A man like Rousseau has far too rosy a theory of human nature; but he produces a revolution. A man like David Hume thinks that almost all things are depressing; but he is a Conservative, and wishes to keep them as they are. A man like Godwin believes existence to be kindly; but he is a rebel. A man like Carlyle believes existence to be cruel; but he is a Tory. Everywhere the man who alters things begins by liking things.

And the real explanation of this success of the optimistic reformer, of this failure of the pessimistic reformer, is, after all, an explanation of sufficient simplicity. It is because the optimist can look at wrong not only with indignation, but with a startled indignation. When the pessimist looks at any infamy, it is to him, after all, only a repetition of the infamy of existence. The Court of Chancery is indefensible—like mankind. The Inquisition is abominable—like the universe. But the optimist sees injustice as something discordant and unexpected, and it stings him into action. The pessimist can be enraged at wrong; but only the optimist can be surprised at it.

— All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on July 19, 2018 at 12:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

“A small thing seems so much larger”

It is one of the paradoxes of man that a small thing seems so much larger than a large thing. We notice a sky-sign when we do not notice the sky; we realize a landmark when we scarcely realise the land; and we look up with awe at the whirling stars above us, without once becoming conscious of the whirling star on which we stand. A small thing is an object; and a large thing is merely a background. The truth has, of course, very deep roots, lying close to what religion has always said of the dependence and the ingratitude of man. It may not be tactful for the philosopher, meeting a man with a pebble in his shoe, to remind him that he is very lucky to have any legs. It man be incautious for the mystic, when the housewife complains of a cobweb on the ceiling, to tell her that the ceiling might fall on her any minute. But the philosopher and the mystic are quite right, for all that; and the truth of what they say is often disinterred in the earthquake of wartime, when limbs are really carried away by cannonballs or roofs come rushing down under the shock of shells. In this, war is very like an earthquake, for an earthquake is a thing in which the largest thing we know begins to move, and to remind us for the first time of how long it as been lying still.

— Illustrated London News, 16 December 1916.

Published in: on July 4, 2018 at 2:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Laughter is as divine as tears”

To most people, however, there is a fascinating inconsistency in the position of St Francis. He expressed in loftier and bolder language than any earthly thinker the conception that laughter is as divine as tears. He called his monks the mountebanks of God. He never forgot to take pleasure in a bird as it flashed past him, or a drop of water as it fell from his finger: he was, perhaps, the happiest of the sons of men. Yet this man undoubtedly founded his whole polity on the negation of what we think the most imperious necessities; in his three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, he denied to himself and those he loved most, property, love, and liberty. Why was it that the most large-hearted and poetic spirits in that age found their most congenial atmosphere in these awful renunciations? Why did he who loved where all men were blind, seek to blind himself where all men loved? Why was he a monk, and not a troubadour? These questions are far too large to be answered fully here, but in any life of Francis they ought at least to have been asked; we have a suspicion that if they were answered we should suddenly find that much of the enigma of this sullen time of ours was answered also.

Twelve Types (1903).

Published in: on June 20, 2018 at 11:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

“No difference”

Why do people think it intelligent to say, “I can see no difference”? It is nowadays quite a mark of culture to say that one can see no difference between a man and a woman, or a man and an angel, or a man and an animal. If a man cannot see the difference between a horse and a cow across a large field, we do not call him cultured: we call him short-sighted. Now there are really interesting differences between angels and women; nay, even between men and beasts, and all such things. They are differences which most people know instinctively, as most people know a cow is not a horse without looking for its mane; or most people know a horse is not a cow without looking for horns. Whether the difference ought to count in this or that important question is a completely different matter; but it ought not really to be so difficult simply to see the difference…

This is a strange epoch; and while, in some ways, we have quite dangerously encouraged the appetites, we have quite ruthlessly crushed the instincts.

— The Illustrated London News, 14 December 2012.

Published in: on June 13, 2018 at 9:33 pm  Comments (1)  

“The narrowest thing about him”

Nine times out of ten a man’s broad-mindedness is necessarily the narrowest thing about him. This is not particularly paradoxical; it is, when we come to think of it, quite inevitable. His vision of his own village may really be full of varieties; and even his vision of his own nation may have a rough resemblance to the reality. But his vision of the world is probably smaller than the world. His vision of the universe is certainly much smaller than the universe. Hence he is never so inadequate as when he is universal; he is never so limited as when he generalises.

What I Saw In America (1921).

Published in: on May 30, 2018 at 9:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Biting holes in their own case”

If a European State, at war with other States, suddenly began to eat its prisoners, the other States would be justified in breaking off all intercourse and international discussion, and destroying it without further speech. But if the other States began, however reluctantly, to eat a prisoner here and there, they might still maintain much of their logical case, and even something of a rather relative moral superiority. But obviously there is one thing they could not possibly maintain, and that is the innocent and instantaneous disgust at the mere sight of the cannibal. Yet it would be precisely upon that innocent disgust that they would base their whole claim to crush a mere nest of cannibals. Even if they only on rare occasion took a bite at a man, even if they were only found cautiously and considerately nibbling at a man, they would be biting holes in their own case: they would be nibbling away the natural instincts which were their chief allies in the whole war. They would be making the crime of their enemy a less exceptional thing, and therefore the crushing of their enemy a more exceptional thing.

— Illustrated London News, 16 September 1916.

Published in: on May 16, 2018 at 5:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

“The poetizing of natural history”

In the early days of the world, the discovery of a fact of natural history was immediately followed by the realization of it as a fact of poetry. When man awoke from the long fit of absent-mindedness which is called the automatic animal state, and began to notice the queer facts that the sky was blue and the grass green, he immediately began to use those facts symbolically. Blue, the colour of the sky, became a symbol of celestial holiness; green passed into the language as indicating a freshness verging upon unintelligence. If we had the good fortune to live in a world in which the sky was green and the grass blue, the symbolism would have been different.

But for some mysterious reason this habit of realizing poetically the facts of science has ceased abruptly with scientific progress, and all the confounding portents preached by Galileo and Newton have fallen on deaf ears. They painted a picture of the universe compared with which the Apocalypse with its falling stars was a mere idyll. They declared that we are all careering through space, clinging to a cannon-ball, and the poets ignore the matter as if it were a remark about the weather. They say that an invisible force holds us in our own armchairs while the earth hurtles like a boomerang; and men still go back to dusty records to prove the mercy of God. They tell us that Mr. Scott’s monstrous vision of a mountain of sea-water rising in a solid dome, like the glass mountain in the fairy-tale, is actually a fact, and men still go back to the fairy-tale.

To what towering heights of poetic imagery might we not have risen if only the poetizing of natural history had continued and man’s fancy had played with the planets as naturally as it once played with the flowers! We might have had a planetary patriotism, in which the green leaf should be like a cockade, and the sea an everlasting dance of drums. We might have been proud of what our star has wrought, and worn its heraldry haughtily in the blind tournament of the spheres. All this, indeed, we may surely do yet; for with all the multiplicity of knowledge there is one thing happily that no man knows: whether the world is old or young.

— The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on May 9, 2018 at 5:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

On Dickens

It was the whole glory and meaning of Dickens that he confined himself to making jokes that anybody might have made a little better than anybody would have made them.

All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on May 2, 2018 at 11:04 am  Leave a Comment