“Galloping plagiarism”

There is a thing which is often called progress, but which only occurs in dull and stale conditions: it is indeed, not progress, but a sort of galloping plagiarism.  To carry the same fashion further and further is not a mark of energy, but a mark of fatigue.  One can fancy that in the fantastic decline of some Chinese civilization one might find things automatically increasing, simply because everybody had forgotten what the things were meant for.  Hats might be bigger than umbrellas, because every one had forgotten to wear them.  Walking sticks might be taller than lances, because nobody ever thought of taking them out on a walk.  The human mind never goes so fast as that except when it has got into a groove.

The Living Age, 21 August 1909.

Published in: on August 26, 2009 at 7:12 am  Leave a Comment  


Confucius was not a religious founder or even a religious teacher; possibly not even a religious man.  He was not an atheist; he was apparently what we call an agnostic.  But the really vital point is that it is utterly irrelevant to talk about his religion at all. It is like talking of theology as the first thing in the story of how Rowland Hill established the postal system or Baden Powell organised the Boy Scouts.  Confucius was not there to bring a message from heaven to humanity, but to organise China; and he must have organised it exceedingly well.  It follows that he dealt much with morals; but he bound them up strictly with manners. The peculiarity of his scheme and of his country, in which it contrasts with its great pendant the system of Christendom, is that he insisted on perpetuating an external life with all its forms, that outward continuity might preserve internal peace. Anyone who knows how much habit has to do with health, of mind as well as body, will see the truth in his idea. But he will also see that the ancestor-worship and the reverence for the Sacred Emperor were habits and not creeds.  It is unfair to the great Confucius to say he was a religious founder. It is even unfair to him to say he was not a religious founder. It is as unfair as going out of one’s way to say that Jeremy Bentham was not a Christian martyr.

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on August 19, 2009 at 7:39 am  Leave a Comment  

“Beginning with the indisputable thing”

This is the essential idea, that all good argument consists in beginning with the indisputable thing and then disputing everything else in the light of it.  It is of great working value in many modern discussions, if its general principle is understood.  First of all, of course, one must leave out the element of the supernatural or the element of the insane.  The element of the supernatural in practical affairs has always been regarded (even by those who most strongly believed in it) as exceptional.  If a miracle is not exceptional, it is not even miraculous.  Nobody was ever taught by any sane creed to count upon or expect anything but the natural.  To put the point briefly, we are commanded to put our faith in miracles, but not to put our trust in them.  The other alternative of mania or some mental breakdown must also be allowed for.  If we have been seriously assured that there are no snakes in Iceland and in spite of that we see snakes in Iceland, it is always reasonable to ask ourselves if our past life has pointed towards “D.T.”  But supposing that those two abnormalities, the mystery that is above humanity and the madness that is below it, are fairly and honestly out of the question, then the right line of argument certainly is that seeing is believing and that the things we have experienced are true in quite another and more pungent sense than the things into which we can merely be argued.  If I am sitting opposite my aunt in Croydon, a telegram may come from her in Highgate, a newspaper may announce that she is taking part in a Highgate Pageant, an expert may prove that it was impossible for her to have reached Croydon in the time, a statistician may say that he has counted all the aunts in Highgate, and there is not one missing; but all these facts are facts of a secondary degree of evidence.  They have the expert, but I have the aunt.  Unless my aunt is a devil, or I am a lunatic, I have possession of the primary fact in the discussion.

I have already said that this very plain principle of thought is useful in connection with many current problems.  Take, for example, the problem of the Unemployed.  It is very common to meet a prosperous gentleman who will point to a seedy and half-starved loafer in the street, and say: “This unemployment business is all bosh: I offered that man work the other day, and he wouldn’t take it.”  Now, this may possibly be true; but it is always used in order to disprove the idea that the man is miserable.  But to disprove that is simply to disprove the one thing that is proved.  You have only to look at the man to say that, for some reason, by somebody’s fault, or nobody’s fault, he has not eaten enough to be a man, or even to be an animal.  That he refused work is a curious circumstance, to be reconciled, if possible, with the palpable fact that he wants money.  He may have refused it because he is half-witted, or because fatigue has killed all power of choice, or because wrong has moved him to an irrational anger, or because he is a saint, or because he is a maniac, or because he is terrorised by a secret society, or because he has a peculiar religion which forbids him to work on Wednesday.  But whatever the explanation is, it is not that he is jolly and full of meat and drink; because you can see that he isn’t.  His impotence may have this cause or that cause, or the other; but his impotence is no defence of the existing system of wealth and poverty.  To use the modern cant, it does not destroy the problem of the unemployed; it only adds to the problem of the unemployable.  But our main point here is this: that people ought to begin by the thing that they can see.  It may take you twenty years to find whether a man is honest.  But it does not take you two seconds to find out that he is thin.  The ordinary rich man’s argument is that because the tramp is dishonest, he must somehow be secretly fat.  That is the great fallacy.  Believe me (I speak as an expert), it is impossible to be fat in secret.

The Illustrated London News, 7 November 1908.

Published in: on August 12, 2009 at 7:36 am  Leave a Comment  

“Black magic”

I believe that the black magic of witchcraft has been much more practical and much less poetical than the white magic of mythology.  I fancy the garden of the witch has been kept much more carefully than the woodland of the nymph. I fancy the evil field has even been more fruitful than the good. To start with, some impulse, perhaps a sort of desperate impulse, drove men to the darker powers when dealing with practical problems. There was a sort of secret and perverse feeling that the darker powers would really do things; that they had no nonsense about them. And indeed that popular phase exactly expresses the point. The gods of mere mythology had a great deal of nonsense about them. They had a great deal of good nonsense about them; in the happy and hilarious sense in which we talk of the nonsense of Jabberwocky or the Land where Jumblies live. But the man consulting a demon felt as many a man has felt in consulting a detective, especially a private detective; that it was dirty work but the work would really be done. A man did not exactly go into the wood to meet a nymph; he rather went with the hope of meeting a nymph.  It was an adventure rather than an assignation.  But the devil really kept his appointments and even in one sense kept his promises; even if a man sometimes wished afterwards, like Macbeth, that he had broken them.

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on August 5, 2009 at 7:11 am  Comments (1)