“An immoral moral”

Let us talk about the comet.

Keep your seats; do not give way to panic.  Have no fear that I am going to moralise about the smallness of man’s petty struggles in the presence of the colossal starry scheme.  I have no intention of drawing a moral about those

Who shriek and sweat in pigmy wars
Before the stony face of Time
And looked at by the silent stars.

I refrain, from the simple reason that to do this is not to moralise, but to immoralise — or, to use the more lucid word, to demoralise.  The moral of the paltriness of mankind is an immoral moral.  Tennyson was quite wrong in this, and “the petty fools of rhyme” were quite right.  People do not look very wise, perhaps, when they shriek and sweat; but they would look a deal sillier if they all held their tongues and did nothing merely because the stars were silent.  If the morning stars never sang together, we can only congratulate ourselves on having inaugurated choir-practice; and if the sons of God did not shout for joy, the sons of men may just as well do so.  And as for the stony face of Time, one guileless journalist, at least, will undertake to shriek and sweat in its presence with considerable nonchalance.  Time is a category to be controlled and kept in its place; and the true philosophy is not so much to take Time by the forelock as to take him by the nose.  The true philosophy, in short, is to kill time and so create eternity — if only for ten minutes.

No; that argument about man looking mean and trivial in the face of the physical universe has never terrified me at all, because it is a merely sentimental argument, and not a rational one in any sense or degree.  I might be physically terrified of a man fifty feet high if I saw him walking about my garden, but even in my terror I should have no reason for supposing that he was vitally more important than I am, or higher in the scale of being, or nearer to God, or nearer to whatever is the truth.  The sentiment of an overpowering cosmos is a babyish and hysterical sentiment, though a very human and natural one.  But if we are seriously debating whether man is the moral centre of this world, then he is no more morally dwarfed by the fact that his is not the largest star than by the fact that he is not the largest mammal.   Unless it can be maintained a priori that Providence must put the largest soul in the largest body, and must make the physical and moral centre the same, “the vertigo of the infinite” has no more spiritual value than the vertigo of a ladder or the vertigo of a balloon.

The Illustrated London News, 19 February 1910.

Published in: on June 30, 2010 at 5:40 am  Leave a Comment  

St. Thomas More

Thomas More died the death of a traitor for defying absolute monarchy; in the strict sense of treating monarchy as an absolute. He was willing, and even eager, to respect it as a relative thing, but not as an absolute thing. The heresy that had just raised its head in his own time was the heresy called the Divine Right of Kings. In that form it is now regarded as an old superstition; but it has already reappeared as a very new superstition, in the form of the Divine Right of Dictators. But most people still vaguely think of it as old; and nearly all of them think it is much older than it is. One of the chief difficulties to-day is to explain to people that this idea was not native to medieval or many older times. People know that the constitutional checks on kings have been increasing for a century or two; they do not realize that any other kind of checks could ever have operated; and in the changed conditions those other checks are hard to describe or imagine. But most certainly medieval men thought of the king as ruling sub deo et lege; rightly translated, “under God and the law,” but also involving something atmospheric that might more vaguely be called, “under the morality implied in all our institutions.” Kings were excommunicated, were deposed, were assassinated, were dealt with in all sorts of defensible and indefensible ways; but nobody thought the whole commonwealth fell with the king, or that he alone had ultimate authority there. The State did not own men so entirely, even when it could send them to the stake, as it sometimes does now where it can send them to the elementary school. There was an idea of refuge, which was generally an idea of sanctuary. In short, in a hundred strange and subtle ways, as we should think them, there was a sort of escape upwards. There were limits to Caesar; and there was liberty with God.

The highest voice of the Church has pronounced that this hero was in the true and traditional sense a Saint and Martyr. And it is appropriate to remember that he does indeed stand, for a rather special reason, with those first Martyrs whose blood was the seed of the Church in the very earliest pagan persecutions. For most of them died; as he did, for refusing to extend a civil loyalty into a religious idolatry. Most of them did not die for refusing to worship Mercury or Venus, or fabulous figures who might be supposed not to exist; or others like Moloch or Priapus whom we might well hope do not exist. Most of them died for refusing to worship somebody who certainly did exist; and even somebody whom they were quite prepared to obey but not to worship. The typical martyrdom generally turned on the business of burning incense before the statue of Divus Augustus; the sacred image of the Emperor. He was not necessarily a demon to be destroyed; he was simply a despot who must not be turned into a deity. That is where their case came so very close to the practical problem of Thomas More; and so very near to the practical problem of mere State-worship to-day. And it is typical of all Catholic thought that men died in torments, not because their foes “spoke all false”; but simply because they would not give an unreasonable reverence where they were perfectly prepared to give a reasonable respect. For us the problem of Progress is always a problem of Proportion: improvement is reaching a right proportion, not merely moving in one direction. And our doubts about most modern developments, about the Socialists in the last generation, or the Fascists in this generation, do not arise from our having any doubts at all about the desirability of economic justice, or of national order, any more than Thomas More bothered his head to object to a hereditary monarchy. He objected to the Divine Right of Kings.

In the very deepest sense he is thus the champion of Liberty in his public life and his still more public death. In his private life he is the type of a truth even less understood to-day; the truth that the real habitation of Liberty is the home. Modern novels and newspapers and problem plays have been piled up in one huge rubbish-heap to hide this simple fact; yet it is a fact that can be proved quite simply. Public life must be rather more regimented than private life; just as a man cannot wander about in the traffic of Piccadilly exactly as he could wander about in his own garden. Where there is traffic there will be regulation of traffic; and this is quite as true, or even more true, where it is what we should call an illicit traffic; where the most modern governments organize sterilization to-day and may organize infanticide to-morrow. Those who hold the modem superstition that the State can do no wrong will be bound to accept such a thing as right. If individuals have any hope of protecting their freedom, they must protect their family life. At the worst there will be rather more personal adaptation in a household than in a concentration camp; at the best there will be rather less routine in a family than in a factory. In any tolerably healthy home the rules are at least partly affected by things that cannot possibly affect fixed laws; for instance, the thing we call a sense of humour.

Therefore More is vividly important as the Humorist; as representing that special phase of the Humanist. Behind his public life, which was so grand a tragedy, there was a private life that was a perpetual comedy. He was, as Mr. Christopher Hollis says in his excellent study, “an incorrigible leg-puller.” Everybody knows, of course, that the comedy and the tragedy met as they meet in Shakespeare, on that last high wooden stage where his drama ended. In that terrible moment he realized and relished the grand joke of the human body, as of a sort of lovable lumber; gravely discussed whether his beard had committed treason; and said in hoisting himself up the ladder, “See me safely up; coming down I can take care of myself.”

But Thomas More never came down that ladder. He had done with all descents and downward goings, and what had been himself vanished from men’s eyes almost in the manner of his Master, who being lifted up shall draw all men after Him. And the dark closed over him and the clouds came between; until long afterwards the wisdom that can a read such secrets saw him fixed far above our heads like a returning star; and established his station in the skies.

The Well and the Shallows (1935).

Published in: on June 23, 2010 at 10:26 pm  Comments (3)  

Lust without life

Where you have laid it, let the sword divide:
And let your unmotherly Medea be
Here sundered from our human trinity
The Mother and the Virgin and the Bride.
Why should we falter? Ours shall be the mirth
And yours the amaze when you have thinned away
Your starving serfs to fit their starveling pay
And seen the meek inheriting the earth.
That Christ from this creative purity
Came forth your sterile appetites to scorn
Lo: in her house Life without Lust was born
So in your house Lust without Life shall die.

— from The Queen of Seven Swords (1926).

Published in: on June 16, 2010 at 5:36 am  Leave a Comment  

“Too liberal to be likely”

What the denouncer of dogma really means is not that dogma is bad; but rather that dogma is too good to be true. That is, he means that dogma is too liberal to be likely. Dogma gives man too much freedom when it permits him to fall. Dogma gives even God too much freedom when it permits him to die. That is what the intelligent sceptics ought to say; and it is not in the least my intention to deny that there is something to be said for it.  They mean that the universe is itself a universal prison; that existence itself is a limitation and a control; and it is not for nothing that they call causation a chain. In a word, they mean quite simply that they cannot believe these things; not in the least that they are unworthy of belief. We say not lightly but very literally, that the truth has made us free. They say that it makes us so free that it cannot be the truth. To them it is like believing in fairyland to believe in such freedom as we enjoy.  It is like believing in men with wings to entertain the fancy of men with wills.  It is like accepting a fable about a squirrel in conversation with a mountain to believe in a man who is free to ask or a God who is free to answer. This is a manly and a rational negation for which I for one shall always show respect.  But I decline to show any respect for those who first of all clip the wings and cage the squirrel, rivet the chains and refuse the freedom, close all the doors of the cosmic prison on us with a clang of eternal iron, tell us that our emancipation is a dream and our dungeon a necessity; and then calmly turn round and tell us they have a freer thought and a more liberal theology.

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on June 9, 2010 at 5:35 am  Comments (2)  

“The new world of fancy”

In fairy tales the objects were mostly familiar; it was only the power that was mystical.  A peasant had never seen a bean-stalk grow up into the sky; but he had seen a bean-stalk and he had seen the sky.  A child had never seen a cat in boots; but he had seen boots and a cat.  The trouble with the new world of fancy is that it consists so much of vast things of which plain people can form no picture: financial hoards, scientific machinery, colossal navies, enormous emigration — images so huge that they do not stir the imagination, but crush it.

The Illustrated London News, 22 January 1910.

Published in: on June 2, 2010 at 6:17 am  Comments (2)