“Dark and fearful conspiracy of goodness”

Athleticism in England is an asceticism, as much as the monastic rules. Men have over-strained themselves and killed themselves through English athleticism. There is one difference and one only: we do feel the love of sport; we do not feel the love of religious offices. We see only the price in the one case and only the purchase in the other.

The only question that remains is what was the joy of the old Christian ascetics of which their ascetism was merely the purchasing price. The mere possibility of the query is an extraordinary example of the way in which we miss the main points of human history. We are looking at humanity too close, and see only the details and not the vast and dominant features. We look at the rise of Christianity, and conceive it as a rise of self-abnegation and almost of pessimism. It does not occur to us that the mere assertion that this raging and confounding universe is governed by justice and mercy is a piece of staggering optimism fit to set all men capering. The detail over which these monks went mad with joy was the universe itself; the only thing really worthy of enjoyment. The white daylight shone over all the world, the endless forests stood up in their order. The lightning awoke and the tree fell and the sea gathered into mountains and the ship went down, and all these disconnected and meaningless and terrible objects were all part of one dark and fearful conspiracy of goodness, one merciless scheme of mercy. That this scheme of Nature was not accurate or well founded is perfectly tenable, but surely it is not tenable that it was not optimistic. We insist, however, upon treating this matter tail foremost. We insist that the ascetics were pessimists because they gave up threescore years and ten for an eternity of happiness. We forget that the bare proposition of an eternity of happiness is by its very nature ten thousand times more optimistic than ten thousand pagan saturnalias.

Twelve Types (1903)

Published in: on January 31, 2018 at 11:07 am  Leave a Comment  

Foolish and wise

Men are not only affected by what they are; but still more, when they are fools, by what they think they are; and when they are wise, by what they wish to be.

What I Saw In America (1921).

Published in: on January 24, 2018 at 11:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

“At hand”

Whatever is it that we are all looking for? I fancy that it is really quite close. When I was a boy I had a fancy that Heaven or Fairyland or whatever I called it, was immediately behind my own back, and that this was why I could never manage to see it, however often I twisted and turned to take it by surprise. I had a notion of a man perpetually spinning round on one foot like a teetotum in the effort to find that world behind his back which continually fled from him. Perhaps this is why the world goes round. Perhaps the world is always trying to look over its shoulder and catch up the world which always escapes it, yet without which it cannot be itself.

In any case, as I have said, I think that we must always conceive of that which is the goal of all our endeavours as something which is in some strange way near. Science boasts of the distance of its stars; of the terrific remoteness of the things of which it has to speak. But poetry and religion always insist upon the proximity, the almost menacing closeness of the things with which they are concerned. Always the Kingdom of Heaven is “At Hand”; and Looking-glass Land is only through the looking-glass. So I for one should never be astonished if the next twist of a street led me to the heart of that maze in which all the mystics are lost. I should not be at all surprised if I turned one corner in Fleet Street and saw a yet queerer-looking lamp; I should not be surprised if I turned a third corner and found myself in Elfland.

— Tremendous Trifles (1909).

Published in: on January 18, 2018 at 12:58 am  Comments (1)  

Local patriotism

Why should good Scotch nationalists call Edward VII the King of Britain? They ought to call him King Edward I of Scotland. What is Britain? Where is Britain? There is no such place. There never was a nation of Britain; there never was a King of Britain; unless perhaps Vortigern or Uther Pendragon had a taste for the title.

If we are to develop our Monarchy, I should be altogether in favour of developing it along the line of local patriotism and of local proprietorship in the King. I think that the Londoners ought to call him the King of London, and the Liverpudlians ought to call him the King of Liverpool. I do not go so far as to say that the people of Birmingham ought to call Edward VII the King of Birmingham; for that would be high treason to a holier and more established power. But I think we might read in the papers: “The King of Brighton left Brighton at half-past two this afternoon,” and then immediately afterwards, “The King of Worthing entered Worthing at ten minutes past three.” Or, “The people of Margate bade a reluctant farewell to the popular King of Margate this morning,” and then, “His Majesty the King of Ramsgate returned to his country and capital this afternoon after his long sojourn in strange lands.” It might be pointed out that by a curious coincidence the departure of the King of Oxford occurred a very short time before the triumphal arrival of the King of Reading. I cannot imagine any method which would more increase the kindly and normal relations between the Sovereign and his people. Nor do I think that such a method would be in any sense a depreciation of the royal dignity; for, as a matter of fact, it would put the King upon the same platform with the gods. The saints, the most exalted of human figures, were also the most local. It was exactly the men whom we most easily connected with heaven whom we also most easily connected with earth.

— All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on January 10, 2018 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

On historical ignorance

It is quite natural that the prosperous people in our time should know no history. If they did know it, they would know the highly unedifying history of how they became prosperous. It is quite natural, I say, that they should know no history: but why do they think they do? Here is a sentence taken at random from a book written by one of the most cultivated of our younger critics, very well written and most reliable on its own subject, which is a modern one. The writer says: “There was little social or political advance in the Middle Ages” until the Reformation and the Renaissance. Now I might just as well say that there was little advance in science and invention in the nineteenth century until the coming of William Morris: and excuse myself by saying that I am not personally interested in spinning-jennies and jelly-fish — which is indeed the case. For that is all that the writer really means: he means he is not personally interested in heralds and mitred abbots. That is all right; but why, when writing about something that did not exist in the Middle Ages, should he dogmatize about a story that he has evidently never heard? Yet it might be a very interesting story.

A little while before the Norman Conquest, countries such as our own were a dust of yet feeble feudalism, continually scattered in eddies by barbarians, barbarians who had never ridden a horse. There was hardly a brick or stone house in England. There were scarcely any roads except beaten paths: there was practically no law except local customs. Those were the Dark Ages out of which the Middle Ages came. Take the Middle Ages two hundred years after the Norman Conquest and nearly as long before the beginnings of the Reformation. The great cities have arisen; the burghers are privileged and important; Labour has been organized into free and responsible Trade Unions; the Parliaments are powerful and disputing with the princes; slavery has almost disappeared; the great Universities are open and teaching with the scheme of education that Huxley so much admired; Republics are proud and civic as the Republics of the pagans stand like marble statues along the Mediterranean; and all over the North men have built such churches as men may never build again. And this, the essential part of which was done in one century rather than two, is what the critics call “little social or political advance”. There is scarcely an important modern institution under which he lives, from that college that trained him to the Parliament that rules him, that did not make its main advance in that time.

If anyone thinks I write this out of pedantry, I hope to show him in a moment that I have a humbler and more practical object. I want to consider the nature of ignorance, and I would begin by saying that in every scholarly and academic sense I am very ignorant myself. As we say of a man like Lord Brougham that his general knowledge was great, I should say that my general ignorance was very great. But that is just the point. It is a general knowledge and a general ignorance. I know little of history; but I know a little of most history. I don’t know much about Martin Luther and his Reformation, let us say; but I do know that it made a great deal of difference. Well, not knowing that the rapid progress of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries made a great deal of difference is quite as extraordinary as never having heard of Martin Luther. I am not well-informed about Buddhists; but I know that they are interested in philosophy. Believe me, not knowing that Buddhists are interested in philosophy is not a bit more astounding than not knowing that the medievals were interested in political progress or experiment. I do not know much about Frederick the Great. I was frightened in my boyhood by the row of Carlyle’s volumes on the subject: there seemed to be an awful lot to know. But, in spite of my fears, I should have been able to guess with some sort of probability the sort of substance such volumes would contain. I should have guessed (and I believe not incorrectly) that the volumes would have contained the word “Prussia” in one or more places; that war would be touched on from time to time; that some mention might be made of treaties and boundaries; that the word “Silesia” might be found by diligent search, as well as the names of Maria Teresa and Voltaire; that somewhere in all those volumes their great author would mention whether Frederick the Great had a father, whether he was ever married, whether he had any great friends, whether he had a hobby or a literary taste of any kind, whether he died on the battle-field or on his bed, and so on and so on. If I had summoned the audacity to open one of these volumes, I should probably have found something on these general lines at least.

Now change the image; and conceive the ordinary young well-educated journalist or man of letters from a public school or a college when he stands in front of a still longer row of still larger books from the libraries of the Middle Ages — let us say, all the volumes of St. Thomas Aquinas. I say that in nine cases out of ten that well-educated young man does not know what he would find in those leathery volumes. He thinks he would find discussions about the powers of angels in the matter of balancing themselves on needles; and so he would. But I say he does not know that he would find a schoolman discussing nearly all the things that Herbert Spencer discussed: politics, sociology, forms of government, monarchy, liberty, anarchy, property, communism, and all the varied notions that are in our time fighting for the time of “Socialism”. Or, again, I do not know much about Mohammed or Mohammedanism. I do not take the Koran to bed with me every night. But, if I did on some particular night, there is one sense at least in which I know what I should not find there. I apprehend that I should not find the work abounding in strong encouragements to the worship of idols; that the praises of polytheism would not be loudly sung; that the character of Mohammed would not be subjected to anything resembling hatred and derision; and that the great modern doctrine of the unimportance of religion would not be needlessly emphasised. But again change the image; and fancy the modern man (the unhappy modern man) who took a volume of medieval theology to bed. He would expect to find a pessimism that is not there, a fatalism that is not there, a love of the barbaric that is not there, a contempt for reason that is not there. Let him try the experiment. It will do one of two good things: send him to sleep — or wake him up.

The Illustrated London News, 15 November 1913.

Published in: on January 3, 2018 at 6:14 pm  Leave a Comment