“Even as we watch it, it grows”

“Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” The civilisation of antiquity was the whole world:  and men no more dreamed of its ending than of the ending of daylight. They could not imagine another order unless it were in another world. The civilisation of the world has passed away and those words have not passed away.  In the long night of the Dark Ages feudalism was so familiar a thing that no man could imagine himself without a lord: and religion was so woven into that network that no man would have believed they could be torn asunder.  Feudalism itself was torn to rags and rotted away in the popular life of the true Middle Ages; and the first and freshest power in that new freedom was the old religion. Feudalism had passed away, and the words did not pass away. The whole medieval order, in many ways so complete and almost cosmic a home for man, wore out gradually in its turn and here at least it was thought that the words would die.  They went forth across the radiant abyss of the Renaissance and in fifty years were using all its light and learning for new religious foundations, new apologetics, new saints. It was supposed to have been withered up at last in the dry light of the Age of Reason; it was supposed to have disappeared ultimately in the earthquake of the Age of Revolution.  Science explained it away; and it was still there.  History disinterred it in the past; and it appeared suddenly in the future.  To-day it stands once more in our path; and even as we watch it, it grows.

The Everlasting Man (1925).

Published in: on August 29, 2012 at 7:15 am  Leave a Comment  

The Joys of Science

I took her and I flattened her
Respectfully, I hope
I pasted her upon a slip
Under the microscope
With six-power-lens — I saw her
Ah, I shall ne’er forget
While hearts can beat and flowers can blow
That hour when first we met.

Ah, with what prayer and fasting
Shall mortal man deserve
To see that glimpse of heaven:
Her motor vagus nerve.
Gaze not, ye too inflammable
Beneath that harmless hair
The convolutions of her brain
Are perilously fair.

I breathed into that microscope
A vow of melting tone
I swore by men and angels
The thunder and the throne
That ere one brave brown hair were touched
On that triumphant head
My serum’s red corpuscula
Should cheerfully be shed.

Spurn not the Men of Science
They sob beneath your sneers
While with their large thermometers
They test their burning tears.
They cleave the rock and rend the flower
They find — is this their sin? —
Nature, the Great King’s daughter,
All glorious within.

— (late 1890s).

Published in: on August 22, 2012 at 11:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

“So long as he is not everybody”

If the house has caught fire a man must ring up the fire engines; a committee cannot ring them up. If a camp is surprised by night somebody must give the order to fire; there is no time to vote it. It is solely a question of the physical limitations of time and space; not at all of any mental limitations in the mass of men commanded. If all the people in the house were men of destiny it would still be better that they should not all talk into the telephone at once; nay, it would be better that the silliest man of all should speak uninterrupted. If an army actually consisted of nothing but Hannibals and Napoleons, it would still be better in the case of a surprise that they should not all give orders together. Nay, it would be better if the stupidest of them all gave the orders. Thus, we see that merely military subordination, so far from resting on the inequality of men, actually rests on the equality of men. Discipline does not involve the Carlylean notion that somebody is always right when everybody is wrong, and that we must discover and crown that somebody. On the contrary, discipline means that in certain frightfully rapid circumstances, one can trust anybody so long as he is not everybody. The military spirit does not mean (as Carlyle fancied) obeying the strongest and wisest man. On the contrary, the military spirit means, if anything, obeying the weakest and stupidest man, obeying him merely because he is a man, and not a thousand men. Submission to a weak man is discipline. Submission to a strong man is only servility.

What’s Wrong with the World (1910).

Published in: on August 15, 2012 at 6:47 am  Leave a Comment  

On Dr. Johnson

The demeanor of Johnson, it is said, was “harsh and despotic.” It was occasionally harsh, but it was never despotic. Johnson was not in the least a despot; Johnson was a demagogue, he shouted against a shouting crowd. The very fact that he wrangled with other people is proof that other people were allowed to wrangle with him. His very brutality was based on the idea of an equal scrimmage, like that of football. It is strictly true that he bawled and banged the table because he was a modest man. He was honestly afraid of being overwhelmed or even overlooked. Addison had exquisite manners and was the king of his company; he was polite to everybody; but superior to everybody; therefore he has been handed down forever in the immortal insult of Pope —

“Like Cato, give his little Senate laws
And sit attentive to his own applause.”

Johnson, so far from being king of his company, was a sort of Irish Member in his own Parliament. Addison was a courteous superior and was hated. Johnson was an insolent equal and therefore was loved by all who knew him, and handed down in a marvellous book, which is one of the mere miracles of love.

What’s Wrong with the World (1910).

Published in: on August 8, 2012 at 10:56 am  Leave a Comment  

“There is blue in it”

It is admitted, one may hope, that common things are never commonplace. Birth is covered with curtains precisely because it is a staggering and monstrous prodigy. Death and first love, though they happen to everybody, can stop one’s heart with the very thought of them. But while this is granted, something further may be claimed. It is not merely true that these universal things are strange; it is moreover true that they are subtle. In the last analysis most common things will be found to be highly complicated.

Some men of science do indeed get over the difficulty by dealing only with the easy part of it: thus, they will call first love the instinct of sex, and the awe of death the instinct of self-preservation. But this is only getting over the difficulty of describing peacock green by calling it blue. There is blue in it. That there is a strong physical element in both romance and the Memento Mori makes them if possible more baffling than if they had been wholly intellectual. No man could say exactly how much his sexuality was colored by a clean love of beauty, or by the mere boyish itch for irrevocable adventures, like running away to sea. No man could say how far his animal dread of the end was mixed up with mystical traditions touching morals and religion. It is exactly because these things are animal, but not quite animal, that the dance of all the difficulties begins. The materialists analyze the easy part, deny the hard part and go home to their tea.

What’s Wrong with the World (1910).

Published in: on August 1, 2012 at 7:14 am  Leave a Comment