“The rights of men”

The thing behind Bolshevism and many other modern things is a new doubt. It is not merely a doubt about God; it is rather specially a doubt about Man.  The old morality, the Christian religion, the Catholic Church, differed from all this new mentality because it really believed in the rights of men.  That is, it believed that ordinary men were clothed with powers and privileges and a kind of authority. Thus the ordinary man had a right to deal with dead matter, up to a given point; that is the right of property.  Thus the ordinary man had a right to rule the other animals within reason; that is the objection to vegetarianism and many other things. The ordinary man had a right to judge about his own health, and what risks he would take with the ordinary things of his environment; that is the objection to Prohibition and many other things. The ordinary man had a right to judge of his children’s health, and generally to bring up children to the best of his ability; that is the objection to many interpretations of modern State education. Now in these primary things in which the old religion trusted a man, the new philosophy utterly distrusts a man.  It insists that he must be a very rare sort of man to have any rights in these matters; and when he is the rare sort, he has the right to rule others even more than himself.

The Outline of Sanity (1926).

The thing behind Bolshevism and many other modern things is a new doubt.
It is not merely a doubt about God; it is rather specially a doubt
about Man.  The old morality, the Christian religion, the Catholic Church,
differed from all this new mentality because it really believed
in the rights of men.  That is, it believed that ordinary men
were clothed with powers and privileges and a kind of authority.
Thus the ordinary man had a right to deal with dead matter,
up to a given point; that is the right of property.  Thus the
ordinary man had a right to rule the other animals within reason;
that is the objection to vegetarianism and many other things.
The ordinary man had a right to judge about his own health, and what
risks he would take with the ordinary things of his environment;
that is the objection to Prohibition and many other things.
The ordinary man had a right to judge of his children's health,
and generally to bring up children to the best of his ability;
that is the objection to many interpretations of modern State education.
Now in these primary things in which the old religion trusted a man,
the new philosophy utterly distrusts a man.  It insists that he must be a
very rare sort of man to have any rights in these matters; and when he is
the rare sort, he has the right to rule others even more than himself.
Published in: on April 7, 2010 at 7:53 am  Comments (1)  

“Like divers at the bottom of the sea”

It is almost too broadly comic that an essential of life like water should be pumped to us from nobody knows where, by nobody knows whom, sometimes nearly a hundred miles away. It is every bit as funny as if air were pumped to us from miles away, and we all walked about like divers at the bottom of the sea. The only reasonable person is the peasant who owns his own well. But we have a long way to go before we begin to think about being reasonable.

The Outline of Sanity (1926).

Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 7:39 am  Comments (1)  

“The same thing”

In practice we already know what is meant by a holiday in a world of machinery and mass production.  It means that a man, when he has done turning a handle, has a choice of certain pleasures offered to him. He can, if he likes, read a newspaper and discover with interest how the Crown Prince of Fontarabia landed from the magnificent yacht Atlantis amid a cheering crowd; how certain great American millionaires are making great financial consolidations; how the Modern Girl is a delightful creature, in spite of (or because of) having shingled hair or short skirts; and how the true religion, for which we all look to the Churches, consists of sympathy and social progress and marrying, divorcing, or burying everybody without reference to the precise meaning of the ceremony.  On the other hand, if he prefers some other amusement, he may go to the Cinema, where he will see a very vivid and animated scene of the crowds cheering the Crown Prince of Fontarabia after the arrival of the yacht Atlantis; where he will see an American film featuring the features of American millionaires, with all those resolute contortions of visage which accompany their making of great financial consolidations; where there will not be lacking a charming and vivacious heroine, recognizable as a Modern Girl by her short hair and short skirts; and possibly a kind and good clergyman (if any) who explains in dumb show, with the aid of a few printed sentences, that true religion is social sympathy and progress and marrying and burying people at random. But supposing the man’s tastes to be detached from the drama and from the kindred arts, he may prefer the reading of fiction; and he will have no difficulty in finding a popular novel about the doubts and difficulties of a good and kind clergyman slowly discovering that true religion consists of progress and social sympathy, with the assistance of a Modern Girl whose shingled hair and short skirts proclaim her indifference to all fine distinctions about who should be buried and who divorced; nor, probably, will the story fail to contain an American millionaire making vast financial consolidations, and certainly a yacht and possibly a Crown Prince. But there are yet other tastes that are catered for under the conditions of modern publicity and pleasure-seeking. There is the great institution of wireless or broadcasting; and the holiday-maker, turning away from fiction, journalism, and film drama, may prefer to “listen-in” to a programme that will contain the very latest news of great financial consolidations made by American millionaires; which will most probably contain little lectures on how the Modern Girl can crop her hair or abbreviate her skirts; in which he can hear the very accents of some great popular preacher proclaiming to the world that revelation of true religion which consists of sympathy and social progress rather than of dogma and creed; and in which he will certainly hear the very thunder of cheering which welcomes His Royal Highness the Crown Prince of Fontarabia when he lands from the magnificent yacht Atlantis.  There is thus indeed a very elaborate and well-ordered choice placed before him, in the matter of the means of entertainment.

But even the rich variety of method and approach unfolded before us in this alternative seems to some to cover a certain secret and subtle element of monotony.  Even here the pleasure-seeker may have that weird psychological sensation of having known the same thing before. There seems to be something recurrent about the type of topic; suggestive of something rigid about the type of mind. Now I think it very doubtful whether it is really a superior mind. If the pleasure-seeker himself were really a pleasure-maker for himself, if he were forced to amuse himself instead of being amused, if he were, in short, obliged to sit down in an old tavern and talk — I am really very doubtful about whether he would confine his conversation entirely to the Crown Prince of Fontarabia, the shingling of hair, the greatness of certain rich Yankees, and so on; and then begin the same round of subjects all over again. His interests might be more local, but they would be more lively; his experience of men more personal but more mixed; his likes and dislikes more capricious but not quite so easily satisfied. To take a parallel, modern children are made to play public-school games, and will doubtless soon be made to listen to the praise of the millionaires on the wireless and in the newspaper. But children left to themselves almost invariably invent games of their own, dramas of their own, often whole imaginary kingdoms and commonwealths of their own.  In other words, they produce; until the competition of monopoly kills their production. The boy playing at robbers is not liberated but stunted by learning about American crooks, all of one pattern less picturesque than his own. He is psychologically undercut, undersold, dumped upon, frozen out, flooded, swamped, and ruined; but not emancipated.

The Outline of Sanity (1926).

Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 8:29 am  Comments (2)  

“A man who really admired machines”

Nobody would be more really unsuitable to the machine age than a man who really admired machines.  The modern system presupposes people who will take mechanism mechanically; not people who will take it mystically.  An amusing story might be written about a poet who was really appreciative of the fairy-tales of science, and who found himself more of an obstacle in the scientific civilization than if he had delayed it by telling the fairy-tales of infancy. Suppose whenever he went to the telephone (bowing three times as he approached the shrine of the disembodied oracle and murmuring some appropriate form of words such as vox et praeterea nihil), he were to act as if he really valued the significance of the instrument. Suppose he were to fall into a trembling ecstasy on hearing from a distant exchange the voice of an unknown young woman in a remote town, were to linger upon the very real wonder of that momentary meeting in mid-air with a human spirit whom he would never see on earth, were to speculate on her life and personality, so real and yet so remote from his own, were to pause to ask a few personal questions about her, just sufficient to accentuate her human strangeness, were to ask whether she also had not some sense of this weird psychical tete-a-tete, created and dissolved in an instant, whether she also thought of those unthinkable leagues of valley and forest that lay between the moving mouth and the listening ear — suppose, in short, he were to say all this to the lady at the Exchange who was just about to put him on to 666 Upper Tooting.  He would be really and truly expressing the sentiment, “Wonderful thing, the telephone!”; and, unlike the thousands who say it, he would actually mean it. He would be really and truly justifying the great scientific discoveries and doing honour to the great scientific inventors. He would indeed be the worthy son of a scientific age.  And yet I fear that in a scientific age he would possibly be misunderstood, and even suffer from lack of sympathy.  I fear that he would, in fact, be in practice an opponent of all that he desired to uphold.  He would be a worse enemy of machinery than any Luddite smashing machines. He would obstruct the activities of the telephone exchange, by praising the beauties of the telephone, more than if he had sat down, like a more normal and traditional poet, to tell all those bustling business people about the beauties of a wayside flower.

It would of course be the same with any adventure of the same luckless admiration.  If a philosopher, when taken for the first time for a ride in a motor-car, were to fall into such an enthusiasm for the marvel that he insisted on understanding the whole of the mechanism on the spot, it is probable that he would have got to his destination rather quicker if he had walked.  If he were, in his simple zeal, to insist on the machine being taken to pieces in the road, that he might rejoice in the inmost secrets of its structure, he might even lose his popularity with the garage taxi-driver or chauffeur. Now we have all known children, for instance, who did really in this fashion want to see wheels go round.  But though their attitude may bring them nearest to the kingdom of heaven, it does not necessarily bring them nearer to the end of the journey.  They are admiring motors; but they are not motoring — that is, they are not necessarily moving. They are not serving that purpose which motoring was meant to serve. Now as a matter of fact this contradiction has ended in a congestion; and a sort of stagnant state of the spirit in which there is rather less real appreciation of the marvels of man’s invention than if the poet confined himself to making a penny whistle (on which to pipe in the woods of Arcady) or the child confined himself to making a toy bow or a catapult.  The child really is happy with a beautiful happiness every time he lets fly an arrow. It is by no means certain that the business man is happy with a beautiful happiness every time he sends off a telegram. The very name of a telegram is a poem, even more magical than the arrow; for it means a dart, and a dart that writes. Think what the child would feel if he could shoot a pencil-arrow that drew a picture at the other end of the valley or the long street. Yet the business man but seldom dances and claps his hands for joy, at the thought of this, whenever he sends a telegram.

Now this has a considerable relevancy to the real criticism of the modern mechanical civilization.  Its supporters are always telling us of its marvellous inventions and proving that they are marvellous improvements. But it is highly doubtful whether they really feel them as improvements. For instance, I have heard it said a hundred times that glass is an excellent illustration of the way in which something becomes a convenience for everybody.  “Look at glass in windows,” they say; “that has been turned into a mere necessity; yet that also was once a luxury.”  And I always feel disposed to answer, “Yes, and it would be better for people like you if it were still a luxury; if that would induce you to look at it, and not only to look through it. Do you ever consider how magical a thing is that invisible film standing between you and the birds and the wind?  Do you ever think of it as water hung in the air or a flattened diamond too clear to be even valued? Do you ever feel a window as a sudden opening in a wall? And if you do not, what is the good of glass to you?” This may be a little exaggerated, in the heat of the moment, but it is really true that in these things invention outstrips imagination. Humanity has not got the good out of its own inventions; and by making more and more inventions, it is only leaving its own power of happiness further and further behind.

The Outline of Sanity (1926).

Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 7:53 am  Leave a Comment  

“Happiness is a hard taskmaster”

There is no obligation on us to be richer, or busier, or more efficient, or more productive, or more progressive, or in any way worldlier or wealthier, if it does not make us happier. Mankind has as much right to scrap its machinery and live on the land, if it really likes it better, as any man has to sell his old bicycle and go for a walk, if he likes that better.  It is obvious that the walk will be slower; but he has no duty to be fast. And if it can be shown that machinery has come into the world as a curse, there is no reason whatever for our respecting it because it is a marvellous and practical and productive curse. There is no reason why we should not leave all its powers unused, if we have really come to the conclusion that the powers do us harm. The mere fact that we shall be missing a number of interesting things would apply equally to any number of impossible things. Machinery may be a magnificent sight, but not so magnificent as a Great Fire of London; yet we resist that vision and avert our eyes from all that potential splendour.  Machinery may not yet be at its best; and perhaps lions and tigers will never be at their best, will never make their most graceful leaps or show all their natural splendours, until we erect an amphitheatre and give them a few live people to eat. Yet that sight also is one which we forbid ourselves, with whatever austere self-denial. We give up so many glorious possibilities, in our stern and strenuous and self-sacrificing preference for having a tolerable time.  Happiness, in a sense, is a hard taskmaster. It tells us not to get entangled with many things that are much more superficially attractive than machinery.  But, anyhow, it is necessary to clear our minds at the start of any mere vague association or assumption to the effect that we must go by the quickest train or cannot help using the most productive instrument.

The Outline of Sanity (1926).

Published in: on January 6, 2010 at 7:37 am  Comments (1)  

“Whom neither kings nor mobs can cow”

Many must have quoted the stately tag from Virgil which says, “Happy were he who could know the causes of things,” without remembering in what context it comes.  Many have probably quoted it because the others have quoted it.  Many, if left in ignorance to guess whence it comes, would probably guess wrong.  Everybody knows that Virgil, like Homer, ventured to describe boldly enough the most secret councils of the gods. Everybody knows that Virgil, like Dante, took his hero into Tartarus and the labyrinth of the last and lowest foundations of the universe. Every one knows that he dealt with the fall of Troy and the rise of Rome, with the laws of an empire fitted to rule all the children of men, with the ideals that should stand like stars before men committed to that awful stewardship.  Yet it is in none of these connections, in none of these passages, that he makes the curious remark about human happiness consisting in a knowledge of causes.  He says it, I fancy, in a pleasantly didactic poem about the rules for keeping bees. Anyhow, it is part of a series of elegant essays on country pursuits, in one sense, indeed, trivial, but in another sense almost technical. It is in the midst of these quiet and yet busy things that the great poet suddenly breaks out into the great passage, about the happy man whom neither kings nor mobs can cow; who, having beheld the root and reason of all things, can even hear under his feet, unshaken, the roar of the river of hell.

The Outline of Sanity (1926).

Published in: on November 4, 2009 at 8:07 am  Leave a Comment  

“Truth in politics”

We have sometimes been asked why we do not admire advertisers quite so much as they admire themselves.  One answer is that it is of their very nature to admire themselves.  And it is of the very nature of our task that people must be taught to criticize themselves; or rather (preferably) to kick themselves.  They talk about Truth in Advertising; but there cannot be any such thing in the sharp sense in which we need truth in politics.  It is impossible to put in the cheery terms of “publicity” either the truth about how bad things are, or the truth about how hard it will be to cure them. No advertiser is so truthful as to say, “Do your best with our rotten old typewriter; we can’t get anything better just now.” But we have really got to say, “Do your best with your rotten old machine of production; don’t let it fall to pieces too suddenly.” We seldom see a gay and conspicuous hoarding inscribed, “You are in for a rough time if you use our new kitchen-range.” But we have really got to say to our friends, “You are in for a rough time if you start new farms on your own; but it is the right thing.” We cannot pretend to be offering merely comforts and conveniences. Whatever our ultimate view of labour-saving machinery, we cannot offer our ideal as a labour-saving machine.  There is no more question of comfort than there is for a man in a fire, a battle, or a shipwreck. There is no way out of the danger except the dangerous way.

The Outline of Sanity (1926).

Published in: on October 7, 2009 at 7:00 am  Leave a Comment  

“A stockbroker”

A stockbroker in one sense really is a very poetical figure. In one sense he is as poetical as Shakespeare, and his ideal poet, since he does give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. He does deal to a great extent in what economists (in their poetical way) describe as imaginaries.  When he exchanges two thousand Patagonian Pumpkins for one thousand shares in Alaskan Whale Blubber, he does not demand the sensual satisfaction of eating the pumpkin or need to behold the whale with the gross eye of flesh. It is quite possible that there are no pumpkins; and if there is somewhere such a thing as a whale, it is very unlikely to obtrude itself upon the conversation in the Stock Exchange. Now what is the matter with the financial world is that it is a great deal too full of imagination, in the sense of fiction. And when we react against it, we naturally in the first place react into realism.

The Outline of Sanity (1926).

A stockbroker in one sense really is a very poetical figure.
In one sense he is as poetical as Shakespeare, and his ideal poet,
since he does give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.
He does deal to a great extent in what economists (in their poetical way)
describe as imaginaries.  When he exchanges two thousand
Patagonian Pumpkins for one thousand shares in Alaskan Whale Blubber,
he does not demand the sensual satisfaction of eating the pumpkin
or need to behold the whale with the gross eye of flesh.
It is quite possible that there are no pumpkins; and if there
is somewhere such a thing as a whale, it is very unlikely
to obtrude itself upon the conversation in the Stock Exchange.
Now what is the matter with the financial world is that it is
a great deal too full of imagination, in the sense of fiction.
And when we react against it, we naturally in the first place
react into realism.
Published in: on July 29, 2009 at 6:47 am  Leave a Comment