“A man who really admired machines”

Nobody would be more really unsuitable to the machine age than a man who really admired machines.  The modern system presupposes people who will take mechanism mechanically; not people who will take it mystically.  An amusing story might be written about a poet who was really appreciative of the fairy-tales of science, and who found himself more of an obstacle in the scientific civilization than if he had delayed it by telling the fairy-tales of infancy. Suppose whenever he went to the telephone (bowing three times as he approached the shrine of the disembodied oracle and murmuring some appropriate form of words such as vox et praeterea nihil), he were to act as if he really valued the significance of the instrument. Suppose he were to fall into a trembling ecstasy on hearing from a distant exchange the voice of an unknown young woman in a remote town, were to linger upon the very real wonder of that momentary meeting in mid-air with a human spirit whom he would never see on earth, were to speculate on her life and personality, so real and yet so remote from his own, were to pause to ask a few personal questions about her, just sufficient to accentuate her human strangeness, were to ask whether she also had not some sense of this weird psychical tete-a-tete, created and dissolved in an instant, whether she also thought of those unthinkable leagues of valley and forest that lay between the moving mouth and the listening ear — suppose, in short, he were to say all this to the lady at the Exchange who was just about to put him on to 666 Upper Tooting.  He would be really and truly expressing the sentiment, “Wonderful thing, the telephone!”; and, unlike the thousands who say it, he would actually mean it. He would be really and truly justifying the great scientific discoveries and doing honour to the great scientific inventors. He would indeed be the worthy son of a scientific age.  And yet I fear that in a scientific age he would possibly be misunderstood, and even suffer from lack of sympathy.  I fear that he would, in fact, be in practice an opponent of all that he desired to uphold.  He would be a worse enemy of machinery than any Luddite smashing machines. He would obstruct the activities of the telephone exchange, by praising the beauties of the telephone, more than if he had sat down, like a more normal and traditional poet, to tell all those bustling business people about the beauties of a wayside flower.

It would of course be the same with any adventure of the same luckless admiration.  If a philosopher, when taken for the first time for a ride in a motor-car, were to fall into such an enthusiasm for the marvel that he insisted on understanding the whole of the mechanism on the spot, it is probable that he would have got to his destination rather quicker if he had walked.  If he were, in his simple zeal, to insist on the machine being taken to pieces in the road, that he might rejoice in the inmost secrets of its structure, he might even lose his popularity with the garage taxi-driver or chauffeur. Now we have all known children, for instance, who did really in this fashion want to see wheels go round.  But though their attitude may bring them nearest to the kingdom of heaven, it does not necessarily bring them nearer to the end of the journey.  They are admiring motors; but they are not motoring — that is, they are not necessarily moving. They are not serving that purpose which motoring was meant to serve. Now as a matter of fact this contradiction has ended in a congestion; and a sort of stagnant state of the spirit in which there is rather less real appreciation of the marvels of man’s invention than if the poet confined himself to making a penny whistle (on which to pipe in the woods of Arcady) or the child confined himself to making a toy bow or a catapult.  The child really is happy with a beautiful happiness every time he lets fly an arrow. It is by no means certain that the business man is happy with a beautiful happiness every time he sends off a telegram. The very name of a telegram is a poem, even more magical than the arrow; for it means a dart, and a dart that writes. Think what the child would feel if he could shoot a pencil-arrow that drew a picture at the other end of the valley or the long street. Yet the business man but seldom dances and claps his hands for joy, at the thought of this, whenever he sends a telegram.

Now this has a considerable relevancy to the real criticism of the modern mechanical civilization.  Its supporters are always telling us of its marvellous inventions and proving that they are marvellous improvements. But it is highly doubtful whether they really feel them as improvements. For instance, I have heard it said a hundred times that glass is an excellent illustration of the way in which something becomes a convenience for everybody.  “Look at glass in windows,” they say; “that has been turned into a mere necessity; yet that also was once a luxury.”  And I always feel disposed to answer, “Yes, and it would be better for people like you if it were still a luxury; if that would induce you to look at it, and not only to look through it. Do you ever consider how magical a thing is that invisible film standing between you and the birds and the wind?  Do you ever think of it as water hung in the air or a flattened diamond too clear to be even valued? Do you ever feel a window as a sudden opening in a wall? And if you do not, what is the good of glass to you?” This may be a little exaggerated, in the heat of the moment, but it is really true that in these things invention outstrips imagination. Humanity has not got the good out of its own inventions; and by making more and more inventions, it is only leaving its own power of happiness further and further behind.

The Outline of Sanity (1926).

Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 7:53 am  Leave a Comment  

“His own time”

It is extraordinary how very little there is in the recorded words of Christ that ties him at all to his own time. I do not mean the details of a period, which even a man of the period knows to be passing. I mean the fundamentals which even the wisest man often vaguely assumes to be eternal. For instance, Aristotle was perhaps the wisest and most wide-minded man who ever lived. He founded himself entirely upon fundamentals, which have been generally found to remain rational and solid through all social and historical changes. Still, he lived in a world in which it was thought as natural to have slaves as to have children. And therefore he did permit himself a serious recognition of a difference between slaves and free men. Christ as much as Aristotle lived in a world that took slavery for granted. He did not particularly denounce slavery. He started a movement that could exist in a world with slavery. But he started a movement that could exist in a world without slavery. He never used a phrase that made his philosophy depend even upon the very existence of the social order in which he lived. He spoke as one conscious that everything was ephemeral, including the things that Aristotle thought eternal. By that time the Roman Empire had come to be merely the orbis terrarum, another name for the world. But he never made his morality dependent on the existence of the Roman Empire or even on the existence of the world. ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.’

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 9:16 am  Leave a Comment  

Theory over practice

I will confess that I attach much more importance to men’s theoretical arguments than to their practical proposals.  If you will, I attach more importance to what is said than to what is done; what is said generally lasts much longer and has much more influence.  I can imagine no change worse for public life than that which some prigs advocate, that debate should be curtailed.  A man’s arguments show what he is really up to.  Until you have heard the defence of a proposal, you do not really know even the proposal.  Thus, for instance, if a man says to me, “Taste this temperance drink,” I have merely doubt slightly tinged with distaste.  But if he says, “Taste it, because your wife would make a charming widow,” then I decide.  Or, again, suppose a man offers a new gun to the British navy, and ends up his speech with the fine peroration, “And after all, since Frenchmen are our brothers, what matters it whether they win or no,” then again I decide.  I could decide to have the man shot with his own gun, if I could.  In short, I would be openly moved in my choice of an institution, not by its immediate proposals for practice, but very much by its incidental, even its accidental, allusion to ideals.  I judge many things by their parentheses.

The New Age, 4 January 1908.

Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 9:41 am  Comments (1)  

“Happiness is a hard taskmaster”

There is no obligation on us to be richer, or busier, or more efficient, or more productive, or more progressive, or in any way worldlier or wealthier, if it does not make us happier. Mankind has as much right to scrap its machinery and live on the land, if it really likes it better, as any man has to sell his old bicycle and go for a walk, if he likes that better.  It is obvious that the walk will be slower; but he has no duty to be fast. And if it can be shown that machinery has come into the world as a curse, there is no reason whatever for our respecting it because it is a marvellous and practical and productive curse. There is no reason why we should not leave all its powers unused, if we have really come to the conclusion that the powers do us harm. The mere fact that we shall be missing a number of interesting things would apply equally to any number of impossible things. Machinery may be a magnificent sight, but not so magnificent as a Great Fire of London; yet we resist that vision and avert our eyes from all that potential splendour.  Machinery may not yet be at its best; and perhaps lions and tigers will never be at their best, will never make their most graceful leaps or show all their natural splendours, until we erect an amphitheatre and give them a few live people to eat. Yet that sight also is one which we forbid ourselves, with whatever austere self-denial. We give up so many glorious possibilities, in our stern and strenuous and self-sacrificing preference for having a tolerable time.  Happiness, in a sense, is a hard taskmaster. It tells us not to get entangled with many things that are much more superficially attractive than machinery.  But, anyhow, it is necessary to clear our minds at the start of any mere vague association or assumption to the effect that we must go by the quickest train or cannot help using the most productive instrument.

The Outline of Sanity (1926).

Published in: on January 6, 2010 at 7:37 am  Comments (1)