“People too dull to be bored”

It is the paradox of most Parliaments that they appeal for a majority and give power to a minority. When a majority becomes a machinery, the minority becomes the man that works the machine. And the minority becomes very much more powerful than it would if there were no Parliament at all. The whole thing works by a curious trick of topsy-turvydom, recalling the tale about the girl who jumped into the water to find out which of her lovers would rescue her. They all jumped in except one; and she adopted the rather cynical course of marrying the dry one.

In this war the majority of men have really proved themselves heroes; they have really, by a common impulse, plunged into the sea of slaughter and catastrophe, and the politician has been left on deck, as the comparatively dry one, with an undisputed claim to steer the ship. But even in normal times the majority of men plunge with no little pluck into the sea of troubles; and the real difficulty of democracy is not that voters are unworthy, but that their vote is generally the least worthy thing about them. When they are not defending their country they are earning their living, or educating their children, or falling in love, or finding salvation, or doing some other thing more interesting than politics, so that the latter is left for politicians as the only people too dull to be bored by it.

Hence we find everywhere very unpopular persons powerful in politics when they are quite impotent in every other department. A man like Mr MacDonald or Mr Snowden, amid the most acute feelings against their anti-national philosophy, could get a Parliamentary seat and a Governmental post much more easily than they could get any other form of public approval — much more easily than they could get a mob to rise for them, or a subscription raised for them, or a popular song sung in their honour.

Illustrated London News, 30 June 1917.

Published in: on May 29, 2019 at 5:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Stronger than strong pain”

Pagans were not impressed by the torture of Christians merely because it showed that they honestly held their opinion; they knew that millions of people honestly held all sorts of opinions. The point of such extreme martyrdom is much more subtle. It is that it gives an appearance of a man having something quite specially strong to back him up, of his drawing upon some power. And this can only be proved when all his physical contentment is destroyed; when all the current of his bodily being is reversed and turned to pain. If a man is seen to be roaring with laughter all the time that he is skinned alive, it would not be unreasonable to deduce that somewhere in the recesses of his mind he had thought of a rather good joke. Similarly, if men smiled and sang (as they did) while they were being boiled or torn in pieces, the spectators felt the presence of something more than mere mental honesty: they felt the presence of some new and unintelligible kind of pleasure, which, presumably, came from somewhere. It might be a strength of madness, or a lying spirit from Hell; but it was something quite positive and extraordinary; as positive as brandy and as extraordinary as conjuring. The Pagan said to himself: “If Christianity makes a man happy while his legs are being eaten by a lion, might it not make me happy while my legs are still attached to me and walking down the street?” The Secularists laboriously explain that martyrdoms do not prove a faith to be true, as if anybody was ever such a fool as to suppose that they did. What they did prove, or, rather, strongly suggest, was that something had entered human psychology which was stronger than strong pain. If a young girl, scourged and bleeding to death, saw nothing but a crown descending on her from God, the first mental step was not that her philosophy was correct, but that she was certainly feeding on something.

All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on May 23, 2019 at 12:23 am  Leave a Comment  

“No authority”

We hear a great deal about ideas being accepted without examination because they come by authority. It is my experience nowadays that any idea will be accepted without any examination so long as it does not come by authority. This can be practically tested at any moment. Indeed, it makes a rather amusing parlour-game. Go into a crowded drawing-room and say, “I have had a revelation from heaven that it is dangerous to wear galoshes,” and your friends will see, even if they do not say, that it is a silly idea. They will think it a silly idea because you give what is, after all, a reason for it. But if you simply say, without any reason or authority whatever, “Don’t you know it’s very dangerous to wear galoshes?” all their faces will instantly alter with intelligence and alarm, and they will discuss every aspect of this important piece of news except the question of where it came from…

It is, after all, even in the rational sense, something in favour of any formula that any public authority has made itself responsible for endorsing it. But in practice, if your remark has some authority, people will resist and criticize it. If it has no authority, they will surrender and swallow it. Such is the detached and daring freedom of the modern mind.

Illustrated London News, 16 June 1917.

Published in: on May 15, 2019 at 12:37 pm  Comments (3)