“Ruled by the inexpert”

The people who abolish public-houses go by charts and tables of figures and the reports of committees — exactly as a despot could do. The man who uses public-houses, the man who runs a public-house, has something to say about them from his experience — which is exactly what a democrat ought to say. If you pay no attention to his personal point, he will feel that he is being ruled, not even by a despot selected for his knowledge, but simply by another tribe selected for its ignorance. He will not even resent being ruled by the expert. He will resent being ruled by the inexpert; and he will resent it more.

Illustrated London News, 25 April 1914.

Published in: on February 1, 2017 at 8:30 am  Leave a Comment  

“Though it is spiritual, it is also solid”

I always thought as a boy that the great objection to finding the North Pole was that even when you found it you could not see it. My fancies fluttered rather round something that one probably would be able to see if one came close to it — such as the Matterhorn. Nor do I even now think the distinction unphilosophical. Like all men who have grown more orthodox and doctrinal about religion, my mind has broadened since those days; and I have a sympathy with physical science that I could not feel when I thought it was destructive and victorious. I see now that the North Pole really is interesting. But I think still that the only real interest of it, which is a mathematical and astronomical interest, can be got quite as well without the Pole being seen, or even being discovered. There is an intellectual fascination about the spot that is neither East nor West, which is almost as entrancing as the castle in the fairy-tale that was east of the sun and west of the moon. There is a mental significance in the one minute spot that is motionless in universal motion, which is full of religious allegory. But all this sort of interest a man can get as well by turning a globe in a school-room as he could by sailing with Admiral Peary. But it is not true that all the interest and the poetry of the Matterhorn can be got as well by reading about its heights in a geography book in a school-room as it could be by going to look at it where it stands. The first pleasure is purely abstract; the second is rather a sort of sacrament: that is to say, that, though it is spiritual, it is also solid.

Illustrated London News, 10 January 1914.

Published in: on January 12, 2017 at 12:26 am  Leave a Comment  

“The feeble things that we fight in vain”

We should be startled if hair-brushes instantly brushed our hair off, or pocket-handkerchiefs entirely removed the nose. Yet the strange modern waste and ruin, moral and material, is really a destruction of strong things by soft things. This is the picturesque point in the Scripture phrase about the moth and rust that corrupt. The moth is frailer than the garments. The rust is softer than the iron. We have to guard the heavy robes of Pontiffs from the wrath of a butterfly. We have to protect the swords of Paladins from a mere red dust or powder, as light as a lady’s rouge. It is the vanities that consume and the feeble things that we fight in vain.

That is true of a society and the ideas that govern a society. It is truest of all of those soft doubts and soft confusions that eat it away. These doubts are never strong, even when they are victorious. They are never cleared up and justified themselves, even when they have condemned and darkened everything else. They produce only anarchy: they cannot rise so high as usurpation.

It would not be difficult to take instances in modern England of this strange triumph of things shapeless and negative in themselves. For instance, compulsory education for the poor has come into conflict all along the line with much more popular and fundamental things. We have come very near to teaching children disobedience to fathers and mothers in order to teach them the secondary obedience to pastors and masters. That a child may be taught at school to cook in six saucepans, the child is often forbidden to boil a kettle for a sick mother or sister. We punish the parents for the usefulness of their children. We can only encourage domesticity in the schoolrooms, where it is useless. We can penalize it in any place where we can prove it is indispensable.

Now, it is here that the curious thing comes in. That an institution or policy should be found in such fanatical conflict with the first affections of human nature, would lead one to suppose that it was some very dogmatic institution, some very exacting and persecuting policy. One would expect it to be a creed for zealots; something like the rush of the hermits into the desert, or the raid of the Moslems out of it. Nothing less, one would fancy, could keep men in these constrained attitudes of exaltation in which they can ignore the family or the flesh.

But when we look at the case, we can find none of these things. The people who disregard Public Education are found and punished. The people who specially regard it are by no means so easy to find. It is rare to come across anyone enthusiastic for our system of elementary instruction. It is not common to find anyone who is even free from grave misgivings about it. One may meet enthusiasts for Eugenics; some of them so enthusiastic that they may almost be described as enthusiasts for polygamy and murder. One may meet enthusiasts for Christian Science, and even for Mrs. Eddy herself. But nobody seems very keen about education — least of all the educators. I have a huge personal respect for the teachers in the Church and State schools, in regard to their untiring cheerfulness, industry, and courage. But I never met one of them who seemed at all certain that the system was doing any good. Yet this invisible thing is visibly violating the sanctuary and the home. This unreality is fighting and subduing the oldest realities of the earth. The life of man is a very strange business.

— The Illustrated London News, 24 August 1912.

Published in: on June 8, 2016 at 7:22 am  Leave a Comment  

“Houses must have numbers”

The people in my town have lately been enormously annoyed by being told that all their houses must have numbers to them… We feel that numbering is neither of the two imaginable or interesting things; it is not an old custom, and it is not a new idea. As far as I am concerned, I have no earthly objection to a number being tied on to my gate, or on to my coat-tails, if it amuses anybody. But that is just the point: the number on my gate would not amuse anybody, not even me. If, on the other hand, Beaconsfield were the first town to invent numbers I should strut about like a peacock.

But, as it is, we know that this innovation is not even an innovation; it is a mere piece of blind annexation and obliteration of boundaries: we are merely conquered by the lowest notions of the suburbs. Even if it be a revolution in Beaconsfield, it is still a platitude in Brixton. We know that in the cold complexities of the great cities, houses must be numbered. We know that in the titanic American cities even streets are numbered. We know that in some yet higher and happier scientific cities of the future even the men and women may be numbered — as are at present only the most abject and unhappy classes, the criminals and the policemen. But we also know that this method does not fit us and was not even meant to.

A town as small as this has a familiar physiognomy: and you might as well number the features of your face, labelling your nose No.9 and your chin No.11, as fix belated figures to the inns, the rectory, the barber’s or the blacksmith’s of such a place. In the decaying cities men know a number first, then a house, and then (very imperfectly) a man. But here in Beaconsfield we know the man first; then we have a hazy notion of the neighbourhood of the house in which he dwells; but, as for the number, we shall not notice it even if it is there.

— The Illustrated London News, 3 August 1912.

Published in: on May 18, 2016 at 12:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Shakespeare’s comedy”

To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, all of the posts in April will make reference to Shakespeare in one way or another.

A few people have ventured to imitate Shakespeare’s tragedy. But no audacious spirit has dreamed or dared to imitate Shakespeare’s comedy. No one has made any real attempt to recover the loves and the laughter of Elizabethan England. The low dark arches, the low strong pillars upon which Shakespeare’s temple rests we can all explore and handle. We can all get into his mere tragedy; we can all explore his dungeon and penetrate to his coal-cellar; but we stretch our hands and crane our necks in vain towards that height where the tall turrets of his levity are tossed towards the sky. Perhaps it is right that this should be so; properly understood, comedy is an even grander thing than tragedy.

— The Illustrated London News, 27 April 1907.

Published in: on April 20, 2016 at 12:02 am  Leave a Comment  

“A lord over ten cities”

All human beings will agree that a Specialist can be trusted too much; though this will not prevent All Political Parties from trusting him with everything they want to shirk. But, indeed, we are past the point of trusting experts as experts. We have come to trusting experts even in the things about which they are amateurs… A man is not only autocratic on one subject, but on all other subjects by right of that subject; and is allowed to be a lord over ten cities because he has been something like a monomaniac over one. This is no exaggeration; a glance at popular magazines and public controversies will give you scores of instances of it. The religion of Haeckel the biologist is more important than his biology. The journalism of a famous cricketer is more prominent than his cricket. Every week or so a paper has what is called a “Symposium,” in which all sorts of “authorities” or “representative men” give their opinions on some public question. You will always find that the “authorities” are authorities on some other subject; and that the “representative men” represent nobody and nothing except their own accidental likes and dislikes.

[…]

Now, we have all seen this sort of thing, and we all know it to be the most monstrous rubbish. We all know these people are not authorities on these subjects, even when they are really authorities on their own. We should all resent it if it were written in a clear and logical combination of ideas. Suppose Paderewski wrote, “Having played the piano diligently for twenty years, I have never come across any case against Capital Punishment.” Suppose Sir Flinders Petrie wrote, “The complete excavation of all ancient Egyptian foundations or fragments leaves us without any real light as to who wrote the Letters of Junius.” Suppose Sir Frederick Treves wrote, “I have conducted a hundred successful operations, and, believe me, there was not one that would have failed if Ireland had had Home Rule.” Set out plainly thus, such judgments are absurd, but not more absurd than that primary plutocratic or editorial judgment that calls in such judges. We really do to-day trust the learned about the things of which they are ignorant, and the traveller about the countries he has not visited.

— The Illustrated London News, 22 June 1912.

Published in: on February 24, 2016 at 12:45 pm  Comments (2)  

“Things seriously beautiful”

Most of us, I suppose, have amused ourselves with the old and flippant fancy of what poets or orators would feel like if their wild wishes came true. The poet would be not a little surprised if the (somewhat inadequate) wings of a dove suddenly sprouted from his shoulder-blades. And I suspect that even the baby who cries for the moon would be rather frightened if it fell out of the sky, crushing forests and cities like a colossal snow-ball, shutting out the stars and darkening the earth it had illuminated. Shelley was magnificently moved when he wished to be a cloud driven before the wild West Wind: but even Shelley would have been not a little disconcerted if he had found himself turning head-over-heels in mid-air the instant he had written the line. He would even be somewhat relieved, I fancy, to fall upon the thorns of life and bleed a little more. When Keats, the human nightingale, lay listening to the feathered one, he expressed a strong desire for a long drink of red wine. In this I believe him to have accurately analyzed his own sentiments. But when he proceeds to explain that he is strongly inclined at that moment to wish himself dead, I entertain strong doubts as to whether he is equally exact, and am by no means certain that he would really like “to cease upon the midnight” even “with no pain”. Such sceptical fantasies, I say, have occurred to most of us; they do not spoil fine poetry for those who really like it; they only salt it with humour and human fellowship. Things seriously beautiful are, perhaps, the only things that we can jest about with complete spiritual safety. One cannot insult the poem except by being afraid of the parody.

Illustrated London News, 22 November 1913.

Published in: on June 3, 2015 at 11:56 am  Leave a Comment  

“Indifference is the armour of sanity”

If I wanted to introduce Democracy into the modern world (a staggering innovation), and if I were considering such schemes as the Referendum or the Second Ballot, there is one reform I should make which I do not remember to have been suggested anywhere: I should count all the citizens who had not voted for an important change as having voted against it. That would knock the Earnest fellows in the wind. For it is not just, and it is not even useful, that only the earnestness of the nation should count. There is much moral value in the indifference of a nation; indifference can be healthy, just as excitement can be unhealthy. The normal citizen should be allowed to grumble at a thing and to laugh at a thing; but he should also be allowed to yawn at a thing. And his yawn should count as well as his yell. A healthy democracy should yawn in chorus; and when the Earnest people introduced some fussy bit of boredom or other, all who were of the contrary opinion should signify the same by holding up their hands — in front of their mouths. For it is a criticism, and a powerful criticism, of any project that it leaves vast varieties of men quite negligent and contemptuous. Indifference is the armour of sanity.

— The Illustrated London News, 15 June 1912.

Published in: on May 13, 2015 at 11:54 am  Leave a Comment  

“God of things as they are”

The wonder-working done by good people, saints and friends of man, is almost always represented in the form of restoring things or people to their proper shapes. St. Nicholas, the Patron Saint of Children, finds a boiling pot in which two children have been reduced to a sort of Irish stew. He restores them miraculously to life, because they ought to be children and ought not to be Irish stew. But he does not turn them into angels; and I can remember no case in hagiology of such an official promotion. If a woman were blind, the good wonder-workers would give her back her eyes; if a man were halt, they would give him back his leg. But they did not, I think, say to the man: “You are so good that you really ought to be a woman”; or to the woman: “You are so bothered it is time you had a holiday as a man.” I do not say there are no exceptions; but this is the general tone of the tales about good magic. But, on the other hand, the popular tales about bad magic are specially full of the idea that evil alters and destroys the personality. The black witch turns a child into a cat or a dog; the bad magician keeps the prince captive in the form of a parrot, or the princess in the form of a hind; in the gardens of the evil spirits human beings are frozen into statues or tied to the earth as trees. In all such instinctive literature the denial of identity is the very signature of Satan. In that sense it is true that the true God is the God of things as they are — or, at least, as they were meant to be.

Illustrated London News, 22 November 1913.

Published in: on April 8, 2015 at 10:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Bad old times”

When a modern Englishman says that he thinks the good old times were bad old times, he simply means that he cannot crowd into three-score years and ten so many mistakes and crimes that Man has been able to crowd into much more than threescore centuries. Which is probably true.

The Illustrated London News, 4 October 1913.

Published in: on February 4, 2015 at 11:36 am  Leave a Comment