“To escape by a plea of guilty”

Becket was a type of those historic times in which it is really very practical to be impracticable. The quarrel which tore him from his friend’s side cannot be appreciated in the light of those legal and constitutional debates which the misfortunes of the seventeenth century have made so much of in more recent history. To convict St. Thomas of illegality and clerical intrigue, when he set the law of the Church against that of the State, is about as adequate as to convict St. Francis of bad heraldry when he said he was the brother of the sun and moon. There may have been heralds stupid enough to say so even in that much more logical age, but it is no sufficient way of dealing with visions or with revolutions. St. Thomas of Canterbury was a great visionary and a great revolutionist, but so far as England was concerned his revolution failed and his vision was not fulfilled. We are therefore told in the text-books little more than that he wrangled with the King about certain regulations; the most crucial being whether “criminous clerks” should be punished by the State or the Church. And this was indeed the chief text of the dispute; but to realise it we must reiterate what is hardest for modern England to understand—the nature of the Catholic Church when it was itself a government, and the permanent sense in which it was itself a revolution.

It is always the first fact that escapes notice; and the first fact about the Church was that it created a machinery of pardon, where the State could only work with a machinery of punishment. It claimed to be a divine detective who helped the criminal to escape by a plea of guilty. It was, therefore, in the very nature of the institution, that when it did punish materially it punished more lightly. If any modern man were put back in the Becket quarrel, his sympathies would certainly be torn in two; for if the King’s scheme was the more rational, the Archbishop’s was the more humane. And despite the horrors that darkened religious disputes long afterwards, this character was certainly in the bulk the historic character of Church government. It is admitted, for instance, that things like eviction, or the harsh treatment of tenants, was practically unknown wherever the Church was landlord. The principle lingered into more evil days in the form by which the Church authorities handed over culprits to the secular arm to be killed, even for religious offences. In modern romances this is treated as a mere hypocrisy; but the man who treats every human inconsistency as a hypocrisy is himself a hypocrite about his own inconsistencies.

— A Short History of England (1917).

Published in: on March 8, 2017 at 11:15 am  Leave a Comment  

“The poison of pride”

Is it not true that pride gives to every other vice the extra touch of the intolerable? Whether or no it be the one thing that is unpardonable, is it not, in practice, the one thing that is unpardoned?

I think the instinct of mankind against pride, as the ultimate human evil, can be proved from the most prosaic details or the most babyish beginnings. We do not specially resent a schoolboy being in love with a different girl every week, nor even his being in love with all of them in the course of the same week. Our dim yet divine desire to kick him only comes when he says that they are all in love with him. Even at that early and innocent stage the egoism is more revolting than the appetite. It is even more so, of course, when the double sin has sprung to maturity. Profligacy might well be pathetic, if the pathos were not killed by the pride. The sort of sensual madness that ends in suicide has about it something of the sacred madness of a marriage. It is at least irrevocable. But what we all hate is the Lothario, the lady-killer. And we hate the murderer, not for the number of times he killed a lady, but for the number of times he has failed to kill himself.

Even from this casual case of the common dandy and professional seducer the practical point could be proved: that pride is the poison in every other vice. It is just as true in the case of the opposite fault. Nobody ever hated a miser. Fundamentally, everybody pitied him. And if you do not understand how throwing pebbles, pulling coat-tails, and firing pea-shooters can be expressions of pity, then I can only tell you (what will doubtless distress you very much) that you are something smaller than mankind. The real miser was so public that he was almost popular. So long as the rich man dressed like a poor man he received something of that unconscious respect that all Christendom has given to the poor man. The rags of the miser were reverenced like the rags of the saint. And this was on the noble and unreasonable ground that both were voluntary. There was this much of truth in the comparison: that neither the saint nor the miser minded looking like a fool. Therefore men have always joked about the miser, as they have about the hermit, as they have about the friar and the monk. The real beggar was funny: the false beggar was even funnier. And the usurers and princes of avarice were never killed (strangely enough) until there had been added to them that dynamite detail which we call pride.

The modern rich began to be hunted by the modern hatred when they had abandoned the wise precautions of the misers. The misers hid their wealth. The millionaires display it. In both cases the common-sense of the public pierces through the pretense. But in the old case it found only a harmless eccentricity; in the new case it discovers a harmful concentration. When all is said and done, however the difference between the two types of money-getting is not hard to state. The fact is that a man was ashamed of being a miser; a man is not ashamed of being a millionaire. This amazing truth can only be explained as the insolence of the profligate has been explained. The usurer, the man-killer, can, like the lady-killer, stun and strengthen himself with the small drug of pride. The moment he can sincerely admire himself, all other men will admire him.

I believe this malady of a small pride will be found almost everywhere to be the reason of wrong and of the rending of human fellowship. Gluttony is a great fault; but we do not necessarily dislike a glutton. We only dislike the glutton when he comes the gourmet — that is, we only dislike him when he not only wants the best for himself, but knows what is best for other people. It is the poison of pride that has made the difference. Sloth is a great fault: but we do not necessarily dislike the sluggard. We only dislike the sluggard when he becomes the aesthete — the man who need not do anything, but need only “exist beautifully”. It is the poison of pride that has made the difference. Passions that can be respected as passions, weaknesses that can be reverenced as weaknesses, can all be suddenly distorted into devilish shapes, and made to dance to devilish tunes, at the first note of this shrill and hollow reed.

Illustrated London News, 22 August 1914.

Published in: on March 1, 2017 at 10:50 am  Leave a Comment  

“The right turning”

Any suggestion that progress has at any time taken the wrong turning is always answered by the argument that men idealise the past, and make a myth of the Age of Gold. If my progressive guide has led me into a morass or a man-trap by turning to the left by the red pillar-box, instead of to the right by the blue palings of the inn called the Rising Sun, my progressive guide always proceeds to soothe me by talking about the myth of an Age of Gold. He says I am idealising the right turning. He says the blue palings are not so blue as they are painted. He says they are only blue with distance. He assures me there are spots on the sun, even on the rising sun. Sometimes he tells me I am wrong in my fixed conviction that the blue was of solid sapphires, or the sun of solid gold. In short he assures me I am wrong in supposing that the right turning was right in every possible respect; as if I had ever supposed anything of the sort. I want to go back to that particular place, not because it was all my fancy paints it, or because it was the best place my fancy can paint; but because it was a many thousand times better place than the man-trap in which he and his like have landed me. But above all I want to go back to it, not because I know it was the right place but because I think it was the right turning. And the right turning might possibly have led me to the right place; whereas the progressive guide has quite certainly led me to the wrong one.

— The New Jerusalem (1920).

Published in: on February 23, 2017 at 12:49 am  Leave a Comment  

“Thought that has been thought out”

Philosophy is merely thought that has been thought out. It is often a great bore. But man has no alternative, except between being influenced by thought that has been thought out and being influenced by thought that has not been thought out. The latter is what we commonly call culture and enlightenment today. But man is always influenced by thought of some kind, his own or somebody else’s; that of somebody he trusts or that of somebody he never heard of, thought at first, second or third hand; thought from exploded legends or unverified rumours; but always something with the shadow of a system of values and a reason for preference. A man does test everything by something. The question here is whether he has ever tested the test.

— The Common Man (1950).

Published in: on February 15, 2017 at 12:18 pm  Comments (2)  

English and French

English excels in certain angular consonants and abrupt terminations that make it extraordinarily effective for the expression of the fighting spirit and a fierce contempt. How fortunate is the condition of the Englishman who can kick people; and how relatively melancholy that of the Frenchman who can only give them a blow of the foot!  If we say that two people fight like cat and dog, the very words seem to have in them a shindy of snaps and screams and scratches.  If we say `comme le chat et le chien,’ we are depressed with the suggestion of comparative peace. French has of course its own depths of resounding power: but not this sort of battering ram of bathos.

— William Cobbett (1925).

Published in: on February 9, 2017 at 12:01 am  Leave a Comment  

“Ruled by the inexpert”

The people who abolish public-houses go by charts and tables of figures and the reports of committees — exactly as a despot could do. The man who uses public-houses, the man who runs a public-house, has something to say about them from his experience — which is exactly what a democrat ought to say. If you pay no attention to his personal point, he will feel that he is being ruled, not even by a despot selected for his knowledge, but simply by another tribe selected for its ignorance. He will not even resent being ruled by the expert. He will resent being ruled by the inexpert; and he will resent it more.

Illustrated London News, 25 April 1914.

Published in: on February 1, 2017 at 8:30 am  Leave a Comment  

“Not practical people”

Most of those who profess to remove all international differences are not practical people. Most of the phrases offered for the reconciliation of severally patriotic peoples are entirely serious and even solemn phrases. But human conversation is not conducted in those phrases. The normal man on nine occasions out of ten is rather a flippant man. And the normal man is almost always the national man. Patriotism is the most popular of all the virtues. The drier sort of democrats who despise it have the democracy against them in every country in the world. Hence their international efforts seldom go any farther than to effect an international reconciliation of all internationalists.

What I Saw In America (1921).

Published in: on January 25, 2017 at 1:01 am  Leave a Comment  

“Spendthrifts of happiness”

The two great parties in human affairs are only the party which sees life black against white, and the party which sees it white against black, the party which macerates and blackens itself with sacrifice because the background is full of the blaze of an universal mercy, and the party which crowns itself with flowers and lights itself with bridal torches because it stands against a black curtain of incalculable night. The revellers are old, and the monks are young. It was the monks who were the spendthrifts of happiness, and we who are its misers.

Twelve Types (1903).

 

Published in: on January 19, 2017 at 12:38 am  Leave a Comment  

“They are in different universes”

Mr Stanley Lee, stepping out of his front door one fine day, may find two men wrestling for their lives…  He may afterwards discover that one of these persons firmly believes himself to be Azrael, the Angel of Death, while his opponent believes him to be an unfortunate gentleman escaped from medical care in a strictly guarded building in the neighbourhood. Now, it is useless for Mr Lee merely to blame both of them for fighting, or even to pity both of them for fighting. They are not engaged in any common activity at all. They do not exist, in any collective sense. They are in different universes. In one universe the Angel of Death is doing his duty and exercising his legitimate discretion, and a blasphemous anarchist is disputing his qualifications. In another universe a perspiring private citizen is trying ot master a bloody-minded maniac.

That is why there is war in Europe at the moment: simply because the Germans are as certain that they are the natural masters of mankind as we are certain that they aren’t. But it must be insistently noted that the quarrel is one about spirit and quality, and cannot be disputed by any discoveries about facts. The kind of madman who thinks he is an angel does not necessarily, or generally, think he has wings. Similarly, Germans do not actually think the Frenchmen have tails. But they do think that Frenchmen have the small vivacity and malice of monkeys; that they are a breed inferior to the German, in the same aboriginal sense as in the case of monkeys. And to this there is no answer except that Frenchmen do not think so; that persons conventionally considered sane and acquainted with Frenchmen do not think so; that, in fact, nobody in the world does think so, except the German who says so. But since, by his own hypothesis, he is the only person who is qualified to judge, of course he goes on saying it.

— Illustrated London News, 29 January 1916.

Published in: on January 15, 2017 at 5:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Though it is spiritual, it is also solid”

I always thought as a boy that the great objection to finding the North Pole was that even when you found it you could not see it. My fancies fluttered rather round something that one probably would be able to see if one came close to it — such as the Matterhorn. Nor do I even now think the distinction unphilosophical. Like all men who have grown more orthodox and doctrinal about religion, my mind has broadened since those days; and I have a sympathy with physical science that I could not feel when I thought it was destructive and victorious. I see now that the North Pole really is interesting. But I think still that the only real interest of it, which is a mathematical and astronomical interest, can be got quite as well without the Pole being seen, or even being discovered. There is an intellectual fascination about the spot that is neither East nor West, which is almost as entrancing as the castle in the fairy-tale that was east of the sun and west of the moon. There is a mental significance in the one minute spot that is motionless in universal motion, which is full of religious allegory. But all this sort of interest a man can get as well by turning a globe in a school-room as he could by sailing with Admiral Peary. But it is not true that all the interest and the poetry of the Matterhorn can be got as well by reading about its heights in a geography book in a school-room as it could be by going to look at it where it stands. The first pleasure is purely abstract; the second is rather a sort of sacrament: that is to say, that, though it is spiritual, it is also solid.

Illustrated London News, 10 January 1914.

Published in: on January 12, 2017 at 12:26 am  Leave a Comment