“The stone that is wearing away the saw”

The terrible danger at the heart of our Society is that the tests are giving way. We are altering, not the evils, but the standards of good by which alone evils can be detected and defined. It is as if we were looking at some great machine, say, a stonecutter’s saw, and the saw was working briskly and the dust flying brightly. But when we came to look close, we found that the stone was unscratched and was wearing away the steel. The thing that should crumble is holding fast; the thing that should hold fast is crumbling. The woodcutter is gaily hacking and hewing; but it is the chips of the axe that are flying, not chips of the tree. The gardener is valiantly digging; but it is pieces of the spade that are coming out, not pieces of the soil.

So the moral scales that were meant to weigh our problems are themselves breaking under the weight of them. The philosophical instruments which were meant to dissect existence are bent and twisted against the toughness of the thing to be dissected. Because it is very hard work to apply principles of judgment to anything, people are everywhere abandoning the principles and practically deciding not to test life at all, and only to let life test them. They do not analyse their situation at all; they let their situation analyse them — which means, break them up.

If what I mean by tests is not plain, I give the plainest case. An honest man falls in love with an honest woman; he wishes, therefore, to marry her, to be the father of her children, to secure her and himself. All systems of government should be tested by whether he can do this. If any system, feudal, servile, or barbaric, does, in fact, give him so large a cabbage-field that he can do it, there is the essence of liberty and justice. If any system, Republican, mercantile, or Eugenist, does, in fact, give him so small a salary that he can’t do it, there is the essence of eternal tyranny and shame.

This clear, sharp, shining ideal of a decent marriage ought to be the saw that cuts its way through the stone of the world; but in truth it is the stone that is wearing away the saw. It should be the business of moral philosophers to maintain these demands for men, women, and children, and criticise, in the light of them, a system that only gives a man seven shillings a week. Instead of that, the modern moral philosophers occupy their lives in explaining how he had better not fall in love, why he need not marry, how we need not have children, and, in short, how his abominable employer may still go on paying him only seven shillings a week.

Look back at the most brilliant period of the recent revolutionists in English thought (nearly all of them good and sincere men personally) and see how, one after another, they all unconsciously supported the employer paying the seven shillings a week. Nearest, we have Bernard Shaw, sneering at the man’s belief in his love and constancy; telling him that all love is calf-love; telling the true lover of the old ballads that there is no such thing as true love, since all love is an illusion. That is the first point gained for the stingy employer; the man may remain a bachelor. Half a generation behind Bernard Shaw we have the artistic Free Lovers, picturesquely represented, let us say, by the late Mr. Grant Allen. They would tell the man that he might love the woman, but need not bind himself to support her: another score for the stingy employer. Half a generation behind that, again, you will see the gigantic figure of Bradlaugh leading his Malthusians. They would say that if he does marry he should not burden himself with posterity: another score for the stingy employer.

Instead of testing the passing institutions by the eternal institutions, we are nibbling away the eternal institutions and leaving ourselves with no test at all.

The Illustrated London News, 25 March 1911.

Published in: on May 4, 2011 at 7:41 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. I remember once having a debate with a person on the more conservative side of the political spectrum who complained at me about how we have crafted a society of entitlement where everyone wants a servile government and no one utters Kennedy’s immortal question “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” My reply was simply to ask what a government is supposed to be for if not to make it possible for people to live, with the greatest amount of opportunity and the least amount of ignorance, infirmity and insecurity. People come first, and if they are not being served by the government then it has failed in its only useful, only legitimate purpose.

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