On nationalism

The suggestion under discussion is broadly this: that Germany suffers chiefly from an overdose and debauch of national feeling, and that therefore Nationalism, which has thus destroyed our enemies, must be watched with a wary eye even in our friends and in ourselves, as if it were a highly dubious explosive. Mr Wells, who has explained this view in many places of late, must not be regarded as one of the dull extremists on the other side. He says he agrees with Home Rule; and I cannot suppose him such a lunatic as not to agree with the national reconstruction of Poland, for upon that essential hang all our hopes of the just peace of Europe or (which is much the same thing) of the adequate restraint of Germany. But the point is not whether he admits that Poland and Ireland have been allowed too little national independence. The point is that he thinks that Germany has been allowed too much national independence. He thinks her nationalism is her narrowness. It is this view that I think false in logic, false in history, and highly perilous in practical politics.

It is false in logic, because Nationalism is a generalisation, as is the nature of any “ism.” An Individualist, if there ever was such an animal, does not think that he is the only person who can be an individual. A Collectivist does not think that his cows and acres ought to be collected by an official, and everyone else’s left as they are. Nor does a Royalist mean a madman who thinks he is the King of England; nor a Pantheist the other kind of madman who thinks he is all the God there is. All such positions imply an appeal to a general rule; and the Nationalist is only a Nationalist if he appeals to a general rule of Nationalism. Nations, like marriages, or like properties, are a class of things accorded a certain recognition by the conscience of our civilisation. One of them cannot logically plead its own rights without pleading the rights of the class. And to say that a nation which disregards frontiers and annexes or destroys neighbours is suffering from an excess of Nationalism is intrinsically nonsensical. We might as well say that a man who runs away with his neighbour’s wife is suffering from an excess of reverence for the institution of marriage. We might as consistently maintain that a man who runs away with his neighbour’s watch is too arrogant and implacable a protector of the rights of property. Mr Wells suggests, in an article in the Daily Chronicle, that the German disposition to ram sauerkraut down everybody’s throat with a bayonet is an extravagance of national feeling. But it is not; it is a deficiency of national feeling — if only in the matter of wasting sauerkraut on people who do not appreciate it. What is the matter with the Germans is not that they think German culture is German culture —  a platitude after their own hearts which they might have peacefully enjoyed to the end of the world. It is that they think German culture is culture — that it is the highest product of evolution, and is on a higher platform above an ignorant world. In other words, they think something culture which is only custom.

And as it is false in theory, it is certainly false in fact. In history the Germans have been the least national of all Europeans. The typical nations, first France, then England, Spain, Scotland, Poland, etc. arose like islands in a sea of barbarism for which Germany was rather a loose allusion than a name. The word Allemagne is said to be derived from what practically means Anybody. If civilised men gave the race any title, it was not so much a definition as an expression of ignorance. We find Germans spoken of in this fashion long after France or England had become nations in the sense in which they are nations now. Often Germans were talked of as if they were German measles — merely one of the perils of life, merely something that happened. And so they were; and they have happened again.

— Illustrated London News, 7 October 1916.

Published in: on February 21, 2018 at 12:04 pm  Comments (4)  

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  

“A strategic mistake”

It is often a strategic mistake to silence a man, because it leaves the world under the impression that he had something to say.

Illustrated London News, 14 August 1915.

Published in: on December 28, 2017 at 11:13 am  Leave a Comment  

“From the complex to the simple”

Herbert Spencer, I think, defined Progress as the advance from the simple to the complex. It is one of the four or five worst definitions in the world, both regarding impersonal truth and also personal application. Progress, in the only sense useful to sensible people, merely means human success. It is obvious that human success is rather an advance from the complex to the simple. Every mathematician solving a problem wants to leave it less complex than he found it. Every colonist trying to turn a jungle into a farm fights, axe in hand, against the complexity of the jungle. Every judge is summoned to expound the law, because a quarrel is complex, and needs to be made simple. I do not say it always is made simple, but that is the idea. Every doctor is called in to remove something which he himself frequently calls a “complication.” A really able doctor generally sees before him something that he himself does not understand. But a really able doctor generally leaves behind him something that everybody can understand — health. The true technical genius has triumphed when he has made himself unnecessary. It is only the quack who makes himself indispensable.


It is the attraction of the detective, and the reason of the real drag of romantic curiosity in all detective stories, that while he begins with a thing so hot and confused as crime, he is yet trying to end with a thing so cold and obvious as law. Those, like myself, who have hunted for good detective stories as dipsomaniacs hunt for drink, know that this is the real difference between the readable and the unreadable tale. The bad mystery-story is that which grows more and more mysterious. The good mystery-story is that which is mysterious, but grows less and less so. A footprint, a strange flower, a cipher telegram, and a smashed top-hat — these do not excite us because they are disconnected, but because the author is under an implied contract to connect them. It is not the inexplicable that thrills us; it is the explanation we have not heard. It is the thing we call art, the thing we call progress. It is the advance from the complex to the simple.

The Illustrated London News, 30 November 1912.

Published in: on October 25, 2017 at 10:37 pm  Comments (2)  

“A sort of small theatre”

We in England are what is called a backward nation. And the most backward thing we are doing is to attempt to extend to the poor the divorce which has already driven the two most advanced nations [viz. France and America] to despair.

The disadvantage of that sort of divorce is that it introduces into daily life a perpetual element of disturbance (or a doubt of disturbance) which human nature was not made to endure. It is as if the door-knocker knocked and ran away, taking the door with it. It is as if the staircase started sliding down the banisters. There must be a firm framework for human life. Even if man be an actor that mouths and rants his hour upon the stage, he cannot be safe for an hour if the stage gives way under him. And the stage on which the white man has hitherto played his part, poorly enough, but sometimes nobly, is a sort of small theatre, called a house. And his essential furniture is his family. If you break and mend, and break again that furniture, you will find what you would find with an arm or a leg — that it has been broken once too often. The limb is lopped off; and the man is not alive. If you pull that framework to pieces, and try to patch and repatch it, you will find at last that it is past repair.

Illustrated London News, 1 August 1914.

Published in: on September 20, 2017 at 9:40 pm  Comments (1)  

“Not gone far enough back”

Have you ever seen a fellow fail at the high jump because he had not gone far enough back for his run? That is Modern Thought. It is so confident of where it is going to that it does not know where it comes from.

Illustrated London News, 11 July 1914.

Published in: on August 16, 2017 at 2:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Unpopular persons powerful in politics”

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 a sea of troubles; and the real difficulty of democracy is not that the 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.

— The Illustrated London News,
30 June 1917.

Published in: on July 12, 2017 at 9:46 pm  Comments (1)  

Third thoughts

They say that second thoughts are best, but I incline to disagree. I think that third thoughts are sometimes best. But I think that first thoughts are much better than second thoughts, and have more resemblance to the real ripeness of third thoughts. In the first stage we act merely on instinct, and are sometimes right. In the second stage we act merely on reason, and are fairly frequently wrong. In the third and truly reasonable stage we use our reason until we understand our instincts.

Illustrated London News, 27 June 1914.

Published in: on June 15, 2017 at 12:05 am  Leave a Comment  


If there is one modern fact for which I must confess an undiluted contempt, it is the fact that the infliction of pain or death is called punishment as long as it is inflicted on the poor and ignorant, and is only blamed as revenge when anyone wishes to inflict it on the wealthy and the strong. It is legal to strangle some miserable creature who has consented to a murder; but it is “vindictive” to shoot a great captain who has commanded a massacre. Pity I can understand, and punishment I can understand; but what are we to say of the servile topsy-turvydom which will punish the most pitiable object and pity a person on the grounds that he has hitherto only been envied?

Mrs Swanwick, the Suffragist who has reappeared as a Pacifist, has recently declared that there must be no punishment for the responsible Prussian. She puts it specifically on the ground that they were promised, or promised themselves, the conquest of the whole world; and they have not got it. This, she says, will be punishment enough. If I were to propose, to the group which is supposed to inspire the Pacifist propaganda, that a man who burgled their petty cash should suffer no punishment beyond failing to get the money, they would very logically ask me if I was an Anarchist. If I proposed that anybody trying to knife or pistol another person should walk away and resume his daily amusements if the knife broke or the pistol missed fire, they would certainly ask me I had contemplated the possibility of encouraging the employment of knives and pistols.

Crime can be only insufficiently restrained when the alternative is between success and punishment. It could hardly be restrained at all if the alternative were only between success and failure; that is, between success and freedom — including freedom to try again. On these grounds I rather reluctantly accept the necessity of punishing the smaller sort of criminal; though I wish it were done in a less callous and insolent style. But if I am asked to punish every kind of robber except the robber baron, and every kind of cannibal except the King of the Cannibal Islands, I should immeasurably prefer, for my own spiritual good, to be an Anarchist altogether.

— Illustrated London News, 2 September 1916.

Published in: on May 11, 2017 at 10:10 am  Leave a Comment  

“The poison of pride”

Is it not true that pride gives to every other vice the extra touch of the intolerable? Whether or no it be the one thing that is unpardonable, is it not, in practice, the one thing that is unpardoned?

I think the instinct of mankind against pride, as the ultimate human evil, can be proved from the most prosaic details or the most babyish beginnings. We do not specially resent a schoolboy being in love with a different girl every week, nor even his being in love with all of them in the course of the same week. Our dim yet divine desire to kick him only comes when he says that they are all in love with him. Even at that early and innocent stage the egoism is more revolting than the appetite. It is even more so, of course, when the double sin has sprung to maturity. Profligacy might well be pathetic, if the pathos were not killed by the pride. The sort of sensual madness that ends in suicide has about it something of the sacred madness of a marriage. It is at least irrevocable. But what we all hate is the Lothario, the lady-killer. And we hate the murderer, not for the number of times he killed a lady, but for the number of times he has failed to kill himself.

Even from this casual case of the common dandy and professional seducer the practical point could be proved: that pride is the poison in every other vice. It is just as true in the case of the opposite fault. Nobody ever hated a miser. Fundamentally, everybody pitied him. And if you do not understand how throwing pebbles, pulling coat-tails, and firing pea-shooters can be expressions of pity, then I can only tell you (what will doubtless distress you very much) that you are something smaller than mankind. The real miser was so public that he was almost popular. So long as the rich man dressed like a poor man he received something of that unconscious respect that all Christendom has given to the poor man. The rags of the miser were reverenced like the rags of the saint. And this was on the noble and unreasonable ground that both were voluntary. There was this much of truth in the comparison: that neither the saint nor the miser minded looking like a fool. Therefore men have always joked about the miser, as they have about the hermit, as they have about the friar and the monk. The real beggar was funny: the false beggar was even funnier. And the usurers and princes of avarice were never killed (strangely enough) until there had been added to them that dynamite detail which we call pride.

The modern rich began to be hunted by the modern hatred when they had abandoned the wise precautions of the misers. The misers hid their wealth. The millionaires display it. In both cases the common-sense of the public pierces through the pretense. But in the old case it found only a harmless eccentricity; in the new case it discovers a harmful concentration. When all is said and done, however the difference between the two types of money-getting is not hard to state. The fact is that a man was ashamed of being a miser; a man is not ashamed of being a millionaire. This amazing truth can only be explained as the insolence of the profligate has been explained. The usurer, the man-killer, can, like the lady-killer, stun and strengthen himself with the small drug of pride. The moment he can sincerely admire himself, all other men will admire him.

I believe this malady of a small pride will be found almost everywhere to be the reason of wrong and of the rending of human fellowship. Gluttony is a great fault; but we do not necessarily dislike a glutton. We only dislike the glutton when he comes the gourmet — that is, we only dislike him when he not only wants the best for himself, but knows what is best for other people. It is the poison of pride that has made the difference. Sloth is a great fault: but we do not necessarily dislike the sluggard. We only dislike the sluggard when he becomes the aesthete — the man who need not do anything, but need only “exist beautifully”. It is the poison of pride that has made the difference. Passions that can be respected as passions, weaknesses that can be reverenced as weaknesses, can all be suddenly distorted into devilish shapes, and made to dance to devilish tunes, at the first note of this shrill and hollow reed.

Illustrated London News, 22 August 1914.

Published in: on March 1, 2017 at 10:50 am  Leave a Comment