“A sort of small theatre”

We in England are what is called a backward nation. And the most backward thing we are doing is to attempt to extend to the poor the divorce which has already driven the two most advanced nations [viz. France and America] to despair.

The disadvantage of that sort of divorce is that it introduces into daily life a perpetual element of disturbance (or a doubt of disturbance) which human nature was not made to endure. It is as if the door-knocker knocked and ran away, taking the door with it. It is as if the staircase started sliding down the banisters. There must be a firm framework for human life. Even if man be an actor that mouths and rants his hour upon the stage, he cannot be safe for an hour if the stage gives way under him. And the stage on which the white man has hitherto played his part, poorly enough, but sometimes nobly, is a sort of small theatre, called a house. And his essential furniture is his family. If you break and mend, and break again that furniture, you will find what you would find with an arm or a leg — that it has been broken once too often. The limb is lopped off; and the man is not alive. If you pull that framework to pieces, and try to patch and repatch it, you will find at last that it is past repair.

Illustrated London News, 1 August 1914.

Published in: on September 20, 2017 at 9:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

On Mary Tudor

Mary Tudor, daughter of the divorced Queen Katherine, has a bad name even in popular history; and popular prejudice is generally more worthy of study than scholarly sophistry. Her enemies were indeed largely wrong about her character, but they were not wrong about her effect. She was, in the limited sense, a good woman, convinced, conscientious, rather morbid. But it is true that she was a bad queen; bad for many things, but especially bad for her own most beloved cause. It is true, when all is said, that she set herself to burn out “No Popery” and managed to burn it in. The concentration of her fanaticism into cruelty, especially its concentration in particular places and in a short time, did remain like something red-hot in the public memory. It was the first of the series of great historical accidents that separated a real, if not universal, public opinion from the old régime. It has been summarized in the death by fire of the three famous martyrs at Oxford; for one of them at least, Latimer, was a reformer of the more robust and human type, though another of them, Cranmer, had been so smooth a snob and coward in the councils of Henry VIII as to make Thomas Cromwell seem by comparison a man… At the time even the Oxford Martyrs probably produced less pity and revulsion than the massacre in the flames of many more obscure enthusiasts, whose very ignorance and poverty made their cause seem more popular than it really was. But this last ugly feature was brought into sharper relief, and produced more conscious or unconscious bitterness, because of that other great fact of which I spoke above, which is the determining test of this time of transition.

What made all the difference was this: that even in this Catholic reign the property of the Catholic Church could not be restored. The very fact that Mary was a fanatic, and yet this act of justice was beyond the wildest dreams of fanaticism -— that is the point. The very fact that she was angry enough to commit wrongs for the Church, and yet not bold enough to ask for the rights of the Church —- that is the test of the time. She was allowed to deprive small men of their lives, she was not allowed to deprive great men of their property —- or rather of other people’s property. She could punish heresy, she could not punish sacrilege. She was forced into the false position of killing men who had not gone to church, and sparing men who had gone there to steal the church ornaments. What forced her into it? Not certainly her own religious attitude, which was almost maniacally sincere; not public opinion, which had naturally much more sympathy for the religious humanities which she did not restore than for the religious inhumanities which she did. The force came, of course, from the new nobility and the new wealth they refused to surrender; and the success of this early pressure proves that the nobility was already stronger than the Crown. The sceptre had only been used as a crowbar to break open the door of a treasure-house, and was itself broken, or at least bent, with the blow.

— A Short History of England (1917).

Published in: on September 13, 2017 at 11:42 am  Leave a Comment  

“The west is awake”

It is easy to see what was the meaning of the Crusade on the merely pagan and political side. In one sentence, it meant that Rome had to recover what Byzantium could not keep.

But something further had happened as affecting Rome than anything that could be understood by a man standing as I have imagined myself standing, in the official area of Byzantium. When I have said that the Byzantian civilisation seemed still to be reigning, I meant a curious impression that, in these Eastern provinces, though the Empire had been more defeated it has been less disturbed. There is a greater clarity in that ancient air; and fewer clouds of real revolution and novelty have come between them and their ancient sun. This may seem an enigma and a paradox; seeing that here a foreign religion has successfully fought and ruled. But indeed the enigma is also the explanation. In the East the continuity of culture has only been interrupted by negative things that Islam has done. In the West it has been interrupted by positive things that Christendom itself has done. In the West the past of Christendom has its perspective blocked up by its own creations; in the East it is a true perspective of interminable corridors, with round Byzantine arches and proud Byzantine pillars.

That, I incline to fancy, is the real difference that a man come from the west of Europe feels in the east of Europe, it is a gap or a void. It is the absence of the grotesque energy of Gothic, the absence of the experiments of parliament and popular representation, the absence of medieval chivalry, the absence of modern nationality. In the East the civilisation lived on, or if you will, lingered on; in the West it died and was reborn. But for a long time, it should be remembered, it must have seemed to the East merely that it died. The realms of Rome had disappeared in clouds of barbaric war, while the realms of Byzantium were still golden and gorgeous in the sun. The men of the East did not realise that their splendour was stiffening and growing sterile, and even the early successes of Islam may not have revealed to them that their rule was not only stiff but brittle. It was something else that was destined to reveal it.

The Crusades meant many things; but in this matter they meant one thing, which was like a word carried to them on the great west wind. And the word was like that in an old Irish song: “The west is awake.” They heard in the distance the cries of unknown crowds and felt the earth shaking with the march of mobs; and behind them came the trampling of horses and the noise of harness and of horns of war; new kings calling out commands and hosts of young men full of hope crying out in the old Roman tongue “Id Deus vult,” Rome was risen from the dead.

— The New Jerusalem (1920).

Published in: on September 6, 2017 at 9:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Understanding foreigners

We have never even begun to understand a people until we have found something that we do not understand. So long as we find the character easy to read, we are reading into it our own character. If when we see an event we can promptly provide an explanation, we may be pretty certain that we had ourselves prepared the explanation before we saw the event. It follows from this that the best picture of a foreign people can probably be found in a puzzle picture. If we can find an event of which the meaning is really dark to us, it will probably throw some light on the truth.

What I Saw In America (1921).

Published in: on August 30, 2017 at 11:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

“A romance of youth”

Rationalism is a romance of youth. There is nothing very much the matter with the age of reason; except, alas, that it comes before the age of discretion.

— William Cobbett (1925).

Published in: on August 23, 2017 at 2:06 pm  Comments (1)  

“Not gone far enough back”

Have you ever seen a fellow fail at the high jump because he had not gone far enough back for his run? That is Modern Thought. It is so confident of where it is going to that it does not know where it comes from.

Illustrated London News, 11 July 1914.

Published in: on August 16, 2017 at 2:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

“In spite of anything”

A man can be a Christian to the end of the world, for the simple reason that a man could have been an Atheist from the beginning of it. The materialism of things is on the face of things; it does not require any science to find it out. A man who has lived and loved falls down dead and the worms eat him. That is Materialism if you like. That is Atheism if you like. If mankind has believed in spite of that, it can believe in spite of anything. But why our human lot is made any more hopeless because we know the names of all the worms who eat him, or the names of all the parts of him that they eat, is to a thoughtful mind somewhat difficult to discover.

— All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on August 2, 2017 at 12:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Thoughts on visiting the Dead Sea

I awoke from a sort of trance of absentmindedness in a landscape that might well awaken anybody. It might awaken a man sleeping; but he would think he was still in a nightmare. It might wake the dead, but they would probably think they were in hell. Halfway down the slope the hills had taken on a certain pallor which had about it something primitive, as if the colours were not yet created. There was only a kind of cold and wan blue in the level skies which contrasted with wild sky-line. Perhaps we are accustomed to the contrary condition of the clouds moving and mutable and the hills solid and serene; but anyhow there seemed something of the making of a new world about the quiet of the skies and the cold convulsion of the landscape. But if it was between chaos and creation, it was creation by God or at least by the gods, something with an aim in its anarchy. It was very different in the final stage of the descent, where my mind woke up from its meditations. One can only say that the whole landscape was like a leper. It was of a wasting white and silver and grey, with mere dots of decadent vegetation like the green spots of a plague. In shape it not only rose into horns and crests like waves or clouds, but I believe it actually alters like waves or clouds, visibly but with a loathsome slowness. The swamp is alive. And I found again a certain advantage in forgetfulness; for I saw all this incredible country before I even remembered its name, or the ancient tradition about its nature. Then even the green plague-spots failed, and everything seemed to fall away into a universal blank under the staring sun, as I came, in the great spaces of the circle of a lifeless sea, into the silence of Sodom and Gomorrah.

For these are the foundations of a fallen world, and a sea below the seas on which men sail. Seas move like clouds and fishes float like birds above the level of the sunken land. And it is here that tradition has laid the tragedy of the mighty perversion of the imagination of man; the monstrous birth and death of abominable things. I say such things in no mood of spiritual pride; such things are hideous not because they are distant but because they are near to us; in all our brains, certainly in mine, were buried things as bad as any buried under that bitter sea, and if He did not come to do battle with them, even in the darkness of the brain of man, I know not why He came. Certainly it was not only to talk about flowers or to talk about Socialism.

The more truly we can see life as a fairy-tale, the more clearly the tale resolves itself into war with the Dragon who is wasting fairyland. I will not enter on the theology behind the symbol; but I am sure it was of this that all the symbols were symbolic. I remember distinguished men among the liberal theologians, who found it more difficult to believe in one devil than in many. They admitted in the New Testament an attestation to evil spirits, but not to a general enemy of mankind. As some are said to want the drama of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark, they would have the drama of Hell without the Prince of Darkness. I say nothing of these things, save that the language of the Gospel seems to me to go much more singly to a single issue. The voice that is heard there has such authority as speaks to an army; and the highest note of it is victory rather than peace. When the apostles were first sent forth with their faces to the four corners of the earth, and turned again to acclaim their master, he did not say in that hour of triumph, “All are aspects of one harmonious whole” or “The universe evolves through progress to perfection” or “All things find their end in Nirvana” or “The dewdrop slips into the shining sea.” He looked up and said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”

Then I looked up and saw in the long jagged lines of road and rock and cleft something of the swiftness of such a thunderbolt. What I saw seemed not so much a scene as an act; as when abruptly Michael barred the passage of the Lord of Pride. Below me all the empire of evil was splashed and scattered upon the plain, like a wine-cup shattered into a star. Sodom lay like Satan, flat upon the floor of the world. And far away and aloft, faint with height and distance, small but still visible, stood up the spire of the Ascension like the sword of the Archangel, lifted in salute after a stroke.

— The New Jerusalem (1920).

Published in: on July 26, 2017 at 1:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Anybody who chooses to prophesy”

Democracy is reproached with saying that the majority is always right. But progress says that the minority is always right. Progressives are prophets; and fortunately not all the people are prophets. Thus in the atmosphere of this slowly dying sectarianism anybody who chooses to prophesy and prohibit can tyrannise over the people. If he chooses to say that drinking is always wrong, or that kissing is always wrong, or that wearing buttons is always wrong, people are afraid to contradict him for fear they should be contradicting their own great-grandchild. For their superstition is an inversion of the ancestor-worship of China; and instead of vainly appealing to something that is dead, they appeal to something that may never be born.

What I Saw In America (1921).

Published in: on July 19, 2017 at 1:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Unpopular persons powerful in politics”

In this war the majority of men have really proved themselves heroes; they have really, by a common impulse, plunged into the sea of slaughter and catastrophe, and the politician has been left on deck, as the comparatively dry one, with an undisputed claim to steer the ship.

But even in normal times the majority of men plunge with no little pluck into a sea of troubles; and the real difficulty of democracy is not that the voters are unworthy, but that their vote is generally the least worthy thing about them. When they are not defending their country they are earning their living, or educating their children, or falling in love, or finding salvation, or doing some other thing more interesting than politics, so that the latter is left for politicians as the only people too dull to be bored by it. Hence we find everywhere very unpopular persons powerful in politics when they are quite impotent in every other department. A man like Mr MacDonald or Mr Snowden, amid the most acute feelings against their anti-national philosophy, could get a Parliamentary seat and a Governmental post much more easily than they could get any other form of public approval — much more easily than they could get a mob to rise for them, or a subscription raised for them, or a popular song sung in their honour.

— The Illustrated London News,
30 June 1917.

Published in: on July 12, 2017 at 9:46 pm  Comments (1)