On the American Revolution

Roughly and frankly speaking, we may say that America forced the quarrel. She wished to be separate, which was to her but another phrase for wishing to be free. She was not thinking of her wrongs as a colony, but already of her rights as a republic. The negative effect of so small a difference could never have changed the world, without the positive effect of a great ideal, one may say of a great new religion. The real case for the colonists is that they felt they could be something, which they also felt, and justly, that England would not help them to be… We talk, with a humiliation too rare with us, about our dubious part in the secession of America. Whether it increase or decrease the humiliation I do not know; but I strongly suspect that we had very little to do with it. I believe we counted for uncommonly little in the case. We did not really drive away the American colonists, nor were they driven. They were led on by a light that went before.

— A Short History of England (1917).

Published in: on July 5, 2017 at 10:57 pm  Comments (2)  

St Peter

A man can really be a martyr without being by any means a saint. The more subtle truth is that he can even be a saint and still have that sort of imperfection.  The first of Christian saints was in that sense a very imperfect martyr.  He eventually suffered martyrdom for a Master whom he had cursed and denied. That marks the tremendous realism of our religion:  its heroes had not heroic faults.  They had not those Byronic vices that can pose almost as virtues.  When they said they were miserable sinners, it was because they really dared to confess the miserable sins. Tradition says that the saint in question actually asked to be crucified upside-down, as if making himself a mere parody of a martyr.  And there is something of the same sacred topsy-turvydom in the strange fancy by which he is haunted in all hagiological art and legend by the symbol of his failure. The crowing of a cock, which has become a phrase for insolence, has in this case actually become an emblem of meekness. Rome has lifted up the cock of Peter higher than the eagle of Caesar, not to preach pride to kings but to preach humility to pontiffs. The cock is crowing for ever that the saint may never crow.
William Cobbett (1925).
Published in: on June 28, 2017 at 11:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

“A very comic creature”

There is a current impression that it is unpleasant to have to run after one’s hat. Why should it be unpleasant to the well-ordered and pious mind? Not merely because it is running, and running exhausts one. The same people run much faster in games and sports. The same people run much more eagerly after an uninteresting little leather ball than they will after a nice silk hat. There is an idea that it is humiliating to run after one’s hat; and when people say it is humiliating they mean that it is comic. It certainly is comic; but man is a very comic creature, and most of the things he does are comic—eating, for instance. And the most comic things of all are exactly the things that are most worth doing—such as making love. A man running after a hat is not half so ridiculous as a man running after a wife.

Now a man could, if he felt rightly in the matter, run after his hat with the manliest ardour and the most sacred joy. He might regard himself as a jolly huntsman pursuing a wild animal, for certainly no animal could be wilder. In fact, I am inclined to believe that hat-hunting on windy days will be the sport of the upper classes in the future. There will be a meet of ladies and gentlemen on some high ground on a gusty morning. They will be told that the professional attendants have started a hat in such-and-such a thicket, or whatever be the technical term. Notice that this employment will in the fullest degree combine sport with humanitarianism. The hunters would feel that they were not inflicting pain. Nay, they would feel that they were inflicting pleasure, rich, almost riotous pleasure, upon the people who were looking on. When last I saw an old gentleman running after his hat in Hyde Park, I told him that a heart so benevolent as his ought to be filled with peace and thanks at the thought of how much unaffected pleasure his every gesture and bodily attitude were at that moment giving to the crowd.

— All Things Considered (1908).

Published in: on June 21, 2017 at 10:58 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  

“A small town of big things”

Jerusalem is a small town of big things; and the average modern city is a big town full of small things. All the most important and interesting powers in history are here gathered within the area of a quiet village; and if they are not always friends, at least they are necessarily neighbours. This is a point of intellectual interest, and even intensity, that is far too little realised. It is a matter of modern complaint that in a place like Jerusalem the Christian groups do not always regard each other with Christian feelings. It is said that they fight each other; but at least they meet each other. In a great industrial city like London or Liverpool, how often do they even meet each other? In a large town men live in small cliques, which are much narrower than classes; but in this small town they live at least by large contacts, even if they are conflicts. Nor is it really true, in the daily humours of human life, that they are only conflicts. I have heard an eminent English clergyman from Cambridge bargaining for a brass lamp with a Syrian of the Greek Church, and asking the advice of a Franciscan friar who was standing smiling in the same shop. I have met the same representative of the Church of England, at a luncheon party with the wildest Zionist Jews, and with the Grand Mufti, the head of the Moslem religion. Suppose the same Englishman had been, as he might well have been, an eloquent and popular vicar in Chelsea or Hampstead. How often would he have met a Franciscan or a Zionist? Not once in a year. How often would he have met a Moslem or a Greek Syrian? Not once in a lifetime. Even if he were a bigot, he would be bound in Jerusalem to become a more interesting kind of bigot. Even if his opinions were narrow, his experiences would be wide. He is not, as a fact, a bigot, nor, as a fact, are the other people bigots, but at the worst they could not be unconscious bigots. They could not live in such uncorrected complacency as is possible to a larger social set in a larger social system. They could not be quite so ignorant as a broad-minded person in a big suburb. Indeed there is something fine and distinguished about the very delicacy, and even irony, of their diplomatic relations. There is something of chivalry in the courtesy of their armed truce, and it is a great school of manners that includes such differences in morals.

— The New Jerusalem (1920).

Published in: on June 7, 2017 at 2:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Hideously right”

Every proof-reader knows that the worst misprint is not that which makes nonsense but that which makes sense; not that which is obviously wrong but that which is hideously right.

What I Saw In America (1921).

Published in: on May 31, 2017 at 11:06 am  Leave a Comment  

“To Battersea”

More than a month ago, when I was leaving London for a holiday, a friend walked into my flat in Battersea and found me surrounded with half-packed luggage.

“You seem to be off on your travels,” he said. “Where are you going?”

With a strap between my teeth I replied, “To Battersea.”

“The wit of your remark,” he said, “wholly escapes me.”

“I am going to Battersea,” I repeated, “to Battersea viâ Paris, Belfort, Heidelberg, and Frankfort. My remark contained no wit. It contained simply the truth. I am going to wander over the whole world until once more I find Battersea. Somewhere in the seas of sunset or of sunrise, somewhere in the ultimate archipelago of the earth, there is one little island which I wish to find: an island with low green hills and great white cliffs. Travellers tell me that it is called England (Scotch travellers tell me that it is called Britain), and there is a rumour that somewhere in the heart of it there is a beautiful place called Battersea.”

“I suppose it is unnecessary to tell you,” said my friend, with an air of intellectual comparison, “that this is Battersea?”

“It is quite unnecessary,” I said, “and it is spiritually untrue. I cannot see any Battersea here; I cannot see any London or any England. I cannot see that door. I cannot see that chair: because a cloud of sleep and custom has come across my eyes. The only way to get back to them is to go somewhere else; and that is the real object of travel and the real pleasure of holidays. Do you suppose that I go to France in order to see France? Do you suppose that I go to Germany in order to see Germany? I shall enjoy them both; but it is not them that I am seeking. I am seeking Battersea. The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.

— Tremendous Trifles (1909).

Published in: on May 24, 2017 at 12:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Aristophanes

Aristophanes was a mighty mocker and derider of the details that were modern in his day; the wild hats and whiskers of ancient progress. Aristophanes was an enemy of modernity, and indeed of modernism. Aristophanes was also a lord of bad language, a man with all the splendid scurrility of Cobbett. But suppose it were recorded of Aristophanes that he came to repent of his satire on Euripides; suppose he had concluded too late that what he had taken for sophistry and scepticism had been a truer traditionalism. We should see nothing but beauty and pathos in some story about Aristophanes bringing the body of Euripides from some barbarian country to the temple of Athene. There would be nothing undignified or unworthy to be carved on a classic frieze in the figure of the great scoffer following the hearse of the great sceptic. But this is only because in the process of time the little things are lost and only the large lines remain. For that little flask of oil, with which the scoffer once stopped the mouth of the sceptic, has lost its bathos for us: and might well be the vessel of the sacred chrism for the anointing of the dead.

William Cobbett (1925).

Published in: on May 17, 2017 at 11:26 pm  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  

Sight-seeing

Sight-seeing is a far more difficult and disputable matter than many seem to suppose; and a man refusing it altogether might be a man of sense and even a man of imagination. It was the great Wordsworth who refused to revisit Yarrow; it was only the small Wordsworth who revisited it after all. I remember the first great sight in my own entrance to the Near East, when I looked by accident out of the train going to Cairo, and saw far away across the luminous flats a faint triangular shape; the Pyramids. I could understand a man who had seen it turning his back and retracing his whole journey to his own country and his own home, saying, “I will go no further; for I have seen afar off the last houses of the kings.” I can understand a man who had only seen in the distance Jerusalem sitting on the hill going no further and keeping that vision for ever.

It would, of course, be said that it was absurd to come at all, and to see so little. To which I answer that in that sense it is absurd to come at all. It is no more fantastic to turn back for such a fancy than it was to come for a similar fancy. A man cannot eat the Pyramids; he cannot buy or sell the Holy City; there can be no practical aspect either of his coming or going. If he has not come for a poetic mood he has come for nothing; if he has come for such a mood, he is not a fool to obey that mood…

No great works will seem great, and no wonders of the world will seem wonderful, unless the angle from which they are seen is that of historical humility.

— The New Jerusalem (1920).

Published in: on May 3, 2017 at 10:11 am  Comments (1)