“Sincere and wrong”

When I was very young I wrote a novel — Lord, what a bad novel! — in which I made the hero say: “There were never any just wars but the religious wars.” It was, perhaps, the only quite sound remark in the whole book. Yet though it was in the mouth of a fictitious character in a fantastic story, it was severely criticized as a reactionary paradox. In a very fine article in the Nation recently, Mr Wells has seen and said that war is sometimes a horrible necessity, in order to put true ideas in the place of false ones. I do not say this for any cheap controversial purpose. I do not urge Mr Wells to apologise to the paladins and persecutors whom he has probably reviled all his life. Yet is is certain if the Crusades had succeeded, there would have been no Balkan Wars; and if the Southern effort in the Thirty Years’ War had succeeded, there would have been no Prussia. I merely welcome the first great truth gathered of this horrible harvest: the truth that if you think wrong, you go wrong.

Mr Wells thinks, and I think so, too, that in the case of the Prussian we are really warring against a delusion. He is like a lunatic with plenty of pistols and a good aim, but liable to shoot a dog out of hatred of cats. Thus he sees the Russian as a yellow-skinned Oriental. He sees the Briton as a yellow-haired deserter. But “they ain’t”. It is one of the innumerable shallow phrases of the modern and mercantile peace, that when people are sincere they should not be attacked. Why, it is exactly because they are sincere that they should be attacked. If a man pretends to be your wife’s previous and lawful husband, you can laugh at him as at any other amusing fraud. If he really believes that he is, you will take prompt action to prevent his acting on his belief. An insincere polygamist is an ornament in any modern house: we use him to carry tea-cups. But a sincere polygamist we will blow to hell, if we can, with horse, foot, and artillery. And if you ask us why, we can only answer — because he is sincere and wrong.

The Prussian is sincere and wrong. He really does think that he could do everything better than everybody; like Bottom the Weaver. I have no doubt he thinks that Prussians could play the bag-pipes better than Highlanders; or dive for pearls better than the pearl-fishers. Prussians already say they understand Shakespeare; from which manifest scream of madness it will be but one note higher to say that they understand Burns. They understand everything: there was never a madman who did not. So that our work with the Prussians is not so much a pulling-down of thrones as a casting-out of devils; not only out of the land, but out of the enemy.

Illustrated London News, 12 September 1914.

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Published in: on January 30, 2019 at 4:36 pm  Comments (2)  

At the end of the war

Every consideration of common-sense suggests that the war is already rapidly reaching its end, and none the less rapidly because it happens to be the right end. The very fact that the enemy is so anxious to finish it in his way, or the nearest he can get to his way, is itself evidence that we are near to finishing it our way.

What the enemy still wishes to avoid is a real reversal of the relations between himself and us. He would avoid the reversal of Sedan even more than the restoration of Alsace. He does not wish the great war of the world to end with one of the decisive battles of the world. He knows how those great decisions dominate history; and how much is remembered as historic because it is dramatic. The same instinct warns him against the bodily presence of invaders on German soil, which will reverse the more recent tradition that Germany is always invading and France being invaded, and return to the older European tradition that it was the Gauls even more than the Teutons who could, if necessary, cross the Rhine.

Germany in recent times has built up a legend that she cannot be invaded, which would have been a worthier legend if it had not always gone along with the legend that she can always invade other people. All the accidents of this war have so far supported this legend, and it is because the legend is just on the very point of being falsified that everything else is surrendered in order that the legend may be saved. If the legend is saved, nothing else can be saved. For that legend is the lie that has forced them into their false position in modern Europe.

The Illustrated London News,
2 November 1918.

Published in: on November 11, 2018 at 10:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

“The mystery of the beasts”

There ought to be a certain limit to our sympathy with animals, not because we need distrust our motives, but because we can never verify our results. There is no reason for not being kind to a fly; but there is real difficulty in finding out if you have been kind to him. Now the world is full of frightful cruelties and neglects which we could all find out if we liked. If we used our imagination upon the sweated worker, the savage, the slave, and even, in some cases, the higher animals, we could get an answer. We could find out, with a rough human finality, whether they are unjustly treated or no. The wealthy idealists of to-day could get an answer to such questions. That is why they will not ask such questions; they are afraid of getting an answer. But the mystery of the beasts and the blinder forms of life is an unfathomable mystery: they cannot discover exactly how much or how little harm they have done to a whale. Therefore they pour their tears into this bottomless bucket: because it is bottomless. They use in pathetic imaginings, by their nature useless and eternal, an energy of the heart which, if directed against real and certain wrongs, might release millions of men from the rack of an artificial agony.

The Illustrated London News, 10 February 1912.

Published in: on November 7, 2018 at 3:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

On physical courage

One of the deepest and most sagacious of the controversial answers of Dr. Johnson ran, I think, something like this: “Why, Sir, strictly speaking , physical courage is not a Christian virtue. Nevertheless, a Christian man should cultivate it; for he who has lost that virtue can never be certain of preserving any other.”

But in our own more refined age not only is courage not called Christian, but cowardice is actually called Christianity.  Motives entirely base, selfish, materialistic, and timid, are supposed to have some kind of savour of the Gospel about them so long as they lead to peace and not to war. Of course, every Christian man, if he be sane, thinks that peace is better than war; and if his horror of war is a compassion for stricken soldiers or an indignation at trampled rights, it is the sentiment of a Christian and even of a saint. But what I complain of is that this spiritual superiority is claimed by Pacifists whose motive is almost as elevated as Falstaff’s when he pretended to be a corpse on the battle-field of Shrewsbury. To keep the peace for money may be as wicked as to make war for money. These rhetoricians may call the merely physical case against war “an advance” in human ethics; but to me it seems not half so like advancing as it is like running away.

The Illustrated London News, 21 June 1913.

Published in: on October 3, 2018 at 12:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Background and foreground

The great principle of the Zoroastrian philosophy seems to be that the thorn is essential to the rose. Or, to put it more correctly, that the life of man is a chessboard, because chess is a royal game — the great game for the human intellect. And in chess it is necessary, not only that there should be black and white, but that black and white should be equal. There must be a pattern of black and white, and the pattern must be exact.

To all this view of life I should only answer that the chessboard is only a pattern, and therefore cannot be a picture. A black-and-white artist always treats one or other colour as the background. The artist may be scrawling black on white, when he is illustrator in pen-and-ink. He may be scrawling white on black, when he is a schoolboy chalking the schoolmaster’s nose on the blackboard. But the pen-and-ink artist knows that the page is white previous to the arrival of the pen and ink. The wicked schoolboy knows that the blackboard is black. So we, as Christians, should always believe that this is a white world with black spots, not a black world with white spots. I should always believe the good in it was its primary plan. Also, I should always remember that chess came from Persia.

— The Illustrated London News, 31 May 1913.

Published in: on August 29, 2018 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment  

“A small thing seems so much larger”

It is one of the paradoxes of man that a small thing seems so much larger than a large thing. We notice a sky-sign when we do not notice the sky; we realize a landmark when we scarcely realise the land; and we look up with awe at the whirling stars above us, without once becoming conscious of the whirling star on which we stand. A small thing is an object; and a large thing is merely a background. The truth has, of course, very deep roots, lying close to what religion has always said of the dependence and the ingratitude of man. It may not be tactful for the philosopher, meeting a man with a pebble in his shoe, to remind him that he is very lucky to have any legs. It man be incautious for the mystic, when the housewife complains of a cobweb on the ceiling, to tell her that the ceiling might fall on her any minute. But the philosopher and the mystic are quite right, for all that; and the truth of what they say is often disinterred in the earthquake of wartime, when limbs are really carried away by cannonballs or roofs come rushing down under the shock of shells. In this, war is very like an earthquake, for an earthquake is a thing in which the largest thing we know begins to move, and to remind us for the first time of how long it as been lying still.

— Illustrated London News, 16 December 1916.

Published in: on July 4, 2018 at 2:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

“No difference”

Why do people think it intelligent to say, “I can see no difference”? It is nowadays quite a mark of culture to say that one can see no difference between a man and a woman, or a man and an angel, or a man and an animal. If a man cannot see the difference between a horse and a cow across a large field, we do not call him cultured: we call him short-sighted. Now there are really interesting differences between angels and women; nay, even between men and beasts, and all such things. They are differences which most people know instinctively, as most people know a cow is not a horse without looking for its mane; or most people know a horse is not a cow without looking for horns. Whether the difference ought to count in this or that important question is a completely different matter; but it ought not really to be so difficult simply to see the difference…

This is a strange epoch; and while, in some ways, we have quite dangerously encouraged the appetites, we have quite ruthlessly crushed the instincts.

— The Illustrated London News, 14 December 2012.

Published in: on June 13, 2018 at 9:33 pm  Comments (1)  

“Biting holes in their own case”

If a European State, at war with other States, suddenly began to eat its prisoners, the other States would be justified in breaking off all intercourse and international discussion, and destroying it without further speech. But if the other States began, however reluctantly, to eat a prisoner here and there, they might still maintain much of their logical case, and even something of a rather relative moral superiority. But obviously there is one thing they could not possibly maintain, and that is the innocent and instantaneous disgust at the mere sight of the cannibal. Yet it would be precisely upon that innocent disgust that they would base their whole claim to crush a mere nest of cannibals. Even if they only on rare occasion took a bite at a man, even if they were only found cautiously and considerately nibbling at a man, they would be biting holes in their own case: they would be nibbling away the natural instincts which were their chief allies in the whole war. They would be making the crime of their enemy a less exceptional thing, and therefore the crushing of their enemy a more exceptional thing.

— Illustrated London News, 16 September 1916.

Published in: on May 16, 2018 at 5:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

The crank

Another way in which I tried to define the crank was that he always begins at the wrong end. He never knows the right way to take hold of anything, as one takes hold of a cat by the scruff of the neck. He always tries to catch his cat by the tail; especially if it is a Manx cat. The thing he begins with is always the thing that is last — and least. Thus, if he is talking about the ancient and lawful bond between man and woman, he will talk about votes before he talks about vows. Thus, if he is talking about children, he will be genuinely interested in the children’s schools; it will never so much as cross his mind that children, as a class, generally belong to families. If he is interested in Shakespeare, he will not be interested in Shakespeare’s poetry; he will be interested in the extraordinary question of who wrote it. If he is interested in one of the Gospels or in one of the Epistles, he will not be interested in what is written there; he will be interested in some bottomless bosh about when it was written. It was when I had got thus far in my speculations that I began to suspect that I had found out the definition of the crank after all.

The true and horrid secret of the crank is this: that he is not interested in his subject. He is only interested in his object. He wants to do something, to alter something, to feel he has made a difference, to rediscover his own miserable existence. He does not care for women, but for Votes for Women; he does not care for children, but for education; he does not care for animals, but for anti-vivisection; he does not care for Nature, but for “open spaces”. He does not care for anything unless he can do something to it. Leave him for three minutes alone with a cow or a canary, and he has not enough energy to live the life of contemplation. He can never enjoy a discussion because he can never enjoy a doubt.

The Illustrated London News, 19 July 1913.

Published in: on April 11, 2018 at 10:09 am  Comments (1)  

“Cogency and concreteness”

The question of whether an utterance can be brought under the law or not should have nothing to do with the violence of the language. It should be concerned only with the cogency and concreteness of the fact. A man should certainly be allowed to call the colour of a lady’s dress devilish. It is a matter of taste. A man should certainly be permitted to call a historian’s theory (let us say) of the economic changes in the sixteenth century a filthy and disgusting theory. It is a matter of opinion. We ought to be able to call a man a beast for being a Bowdleriser. We ought to be free to call a man a devil for being a Theosophist. For it is perfectly plain in such cases that we are not accusing the man of being anything other than he professes to be: we are only expressing our own personal and irresponsible dislike of what he does profess to be. We are not saying anything that could shake his credit among his friends; we are only indicating (as it were, faintly) that he is not likely to be one of ours.

— The Illustrated London News, 3 May 1913.

Published in: on March 21, 2018 at 6:39 pm  Leave a Comment