“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  

“Topsy-turvydom”

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  

“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  

“They are in different universes”

Mr Stanley Lee, stepping out of his front door one fine day, may find two men wrestling for their lives…  He may afterwards discover that one of these persons firmly believes himself to be Azrael, the Angel of Death, while his opponent believes him to be an unfortunate gentleman escaped from medical care in a strictly guarded building in the neighbourhood. Now, it is useless for Mr Lee merely to blame both of them for fighting, or even to pity both of them for fighting. They are not engaged in any common activity at all. They do not exist, in any collective sense. They are in different universes. In one universe the Angel of Death is doing his duty and exercising his legitimate discretion, and a blasphemous anarchist is disputing his qualifications. In another universe a perspiring private citizen is trying ot master a bloody-minded maniac.

That is why there is war in Europe at the moment: simply because the Germans are as certain that they are the natural masters of mankind as we are certain that they aren’t. But it must be insistently noted that the quarrel is one about spirit and quality, and cannot be disputed by any discoveries about facts. The kind of madman who thinks he is an angel does not necessarily, or generally, think he has wings. Similarly, Germans do not actually think the Frenchmen have tails. But they do think that Frenchmen have the small vivacity and malice of monkeys; that they are a breed inferior to the German, in the same aboriginal sense as in the case of monkeys. And to this there is no answer except that Frenchmen do not think so; that persons conventionally considered sane and acquainted with Frenchmen do not think so; that, in fact, nobody in the world does think so, except the German who says so. But since, by his own hypothesis, he is the only person who is qualified to judge, of course he goes on saying it.

— Illustrated London News, 29 January 1916.

Published in: on January 15, 2017 at 5:21 pm  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