“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  

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)