The Tyranny of Shams/Chapter I
CHAPTER ITHE PHILOSOPHY OF REVOLT
Although this work does not embody any system of speculation about the universe, any creed or ’ism or large and abstruse set of principles, it must begin with a careful study of the phenomenon of revolt. Never before was there such an age of general and feverish restlessness; never was there such quaking of the deepest foundations of old institutions, such tottering of thrones and altars. From every intellectual centre the disturbing waves radiate. Round London, Berlin, and New York the rumbling is habitual. Already they perceive it in Tokyo and Peking and Constantinople. Tomorrow it will break on the ear in Teheran and Lhasa. The same questions are asked all over the earth. I have discussed them with millionaires at the Ritz and with great ladies at Claridge’s: with students in their universities and miners in their cottages: with learned professors in Rome or New York, and with notorious anarchists in obscure corners of Paris: with working girls in Melbourne, with Maoris in Wellington, with Chinese and Hindus and alert, full-blooded Africans. I have been invited to discuss them with a Polynesian princess and to lecture on them in Fiji, and I have had letters on them from Japanese settlers in British Columbia and negro tailors in British Guiana. The same questions everywhere: religious doctrines and political forms, education and industry, marriage and woman — almost every ideal and institution we have inherited. And the persistent note that resounds from continent to continent is the note of rebellion.
Very different feelings are inspired by this characteristic fact of modern life. To some it seems that this melting of the rigid framework of traditions is a welcome sign of spring and growth: that a long winter, which had slowed the blood of the earth and retarded the development of civilisation, is over at last, and little, shapeless, promising shoots of new ideals are rising from the loosened soil. To others it seems as if the binding fabric of our civilisation were weakened and we were in danger of returning to barbarism. Surely those old traditions did hold together the structure of our civilisation? And surely it is impossible to replace in a few generations the links of a planet-wide human society? The shades of dead Memphis and Babylon and Nineveh, of Athens and Rome and Bagdad, of Venice and Genoa and Florence, pass before their anxious eyes. In each case, they remind us, this same moral, social, and intellectual restlessness preceded death.
The inevitable specialism of our age adds to the confusion. Life is a connected whole, yet neither research nor reform can now be other than sectional. We devote ourselves to a candid study of some particular reform, and we find it a thoroughly reasonable proposal, a deduction from principles that we are bound to admit. But we have not had leisure to discover the indisputable principles of other reforms; and, when we hear the demand of change and progress rising on one side after another — in the Church, the State, the Home, the School, and so on — we remark sententiously that rebellion is becoming a fashion, that our generation is getting feverish or neurotic, that we must insist on authority somewhere. We repeat plausible phrases about the decay of respect and the wisdom of the race. We fasten on symptoms of disorder — without inquiring very closely whether the disorder is new or has been recently aggravated — and we conclude that conservatism is a social duty: that, at all events, we will admit reform only by the inch. We fancy ourselves the guardians of the palladium.
Quite apart from purely selfish motives, some of the closest observers of our age do differ radically in diagnosis and prescription. The same movements are symptoms of health to one man, symptoms of disease to another. Take the enlargement of divorce, the decay of clerical authority, the industrial revolt, or the rebellion of women. There seems to be no common ground left on which the observers may meet with any hope of agreement. The old religious and political standards will now hopelessly divide any roomful of educated men and women. You propose, perhaps, to fall back on moral standards — the ground on which “all reasonable people” unite — and someone quotes against you half a dozen of the most brilliant writers of Europe and America. Hopes and lamentations, inspired by precisely the same facts of life, mingle confusedly in our literature, and men and women of large heart and little leisure seem to be condemned to a sterile perplexity or a selfish absorption in business and pleasure. What, at all events, is the meaning or purpose of life? And how is this spreading rebellion related to it?
First let us examine the grounds of the very distressing forecasts of the Conservative. In the vast majority of cases that are worth examining one will find that the pessimism has not very firm foundations. Your dismal prophet is usually a man with an ancient gospel which we are discarding, or a new gospel which does not attract us. The appeal to the modern world, he realises, must be utilitarian: he must show us that, without him, we perish. So he recklessly heaps up before our eyes statistics of crime and consumption and lunacy and alcohol: he makes weird and totally inaccurate statements about France or the United States or some other country: he marshals the shades of dead empires — which seem to have died of a wonderful complication of modern maladies — before us with appropriate rhetoric.
Now to this kind of conservatism, which says that we are decaying, I reply that, on every positive test of national health, we are more flourishing than we ever were before. Dark as the earth is, it was never brighter than it is to-day, or more full of promise for the morrow. The war is not inconsistent with this general statement, as I will show later. A failure to advance in one direction does not alter the fact that we have advanced in a hundred others; and the gross behaviour of one nation does not destroy the gain that half a dozen other nations were ready to behave with a new decency in warfare. As to that “lesson of history” which is stridently read to us by men and women whose command of history is not otherwise conspicuous, I would remind them that the civilisation of dead empires always reached its height just before, or at the time when, they began to decay. Does anyone suggest that we ought not further to develop our civilisation lest we also decay? However, I have sufficiently discussed elsewhere this nonsense about “laws of history”; and I will show later that these older empires decayed, not because of their high development of intellect and fine sentiment, which leads to revolt, but from the natural defect of those very institutions which our conservatives defend.
We are not decaying. England is, for every class of its citizens, an immeasurably finer place to live in than it was a hundred years ago. I speak on the strength of a rigorous comparison of the moral and social life of England a century ago with that of modern England, but I cannot give the facts here. Let it suffice to make plain that I have no sympathy with pessimists and preachers of penance and austerity, of any school. The world improves, and improves more rapidly than it ever did before. What stirs one’s impatience is the consciousness that we could, and do not, move with infinitely greater speed: that we tolerate abuses and shams which insult our intelligence and mock our professions of humanity.
What, then, are the grounds of the optimistic view of this widespread revolt? Let us admit that conservatism, in the sense of an attitude of caution, is a virtue. We would not try unknown drugs on the life of an individual, and we ought not to apply untried recipes to the life of forty million people. Yet it is precisely from this medical world that we gather valuable hints of progress. By two centuries of sober and heroic labour the physician has brought the greater part of our maladies under control. He would tell you, in private, that he has a hope of eventually being able to check all disease and prolong life. The laissez-faire attitude is unknown in medical science. It is unknown in our technical and commercial worlds. We have made stupendous progress, not by conserving, but by innovating: not asking if a machine or a system worked well, but if we could devise a better. In science — in all on which we pride ourselves in modern civilisation — we have followed the progressive principle: we have cultivated revolt. Since we began to do so, we have raised the level of our civilisation in each generation.
It is therefore not surprising that many are asking whether we ought not to extend the progressive principle to our religions, moralities, politics, economic systems, schools, domestic and civic and social traditions. It is, in other words, quite natural that there should be a demand for, not one reform only, but a hundred reforms, in modern life. We are justly, wisely proud of what is distinctive and superior in our civilisation: advance, better organisation, economy of waste, greater efficiency. The mystery is that so many would restrict this improvement to what they call the “lower” material departments of life, and keep a strict guard against the reformer at the frontiers of their spiritual or political world. The modern rebellion is a very logical effort to apply these very successful principles to as much of life as is susceptible of improvement.
This effort, further, coincides with the quite dominant and characteristic note of modern culture: evolution. We forget sometimes that until half a century ago Europe was oppressed by an entirely wrong view of the earth’s resources. Plato put a philosophic anathema on the earth. This material mass, he said, was a barren thing. Order, truth, beauty, love had to come to it, in fitful gleams, from a world beyond, over which man had no control. We know now that Plato was wrong. Order, truth, beauty, and love have developed on the earth — they are “sublunary” things — and man can control their sources and enlarge their proportions. They do not properly make men great: men make them great. They are as surely under our direction as are applied science and commerce and the franchise. We can cultivate them as we now cultivate pansies or sheep. It depends on us if lies and disorder and dishonour are to linger among us, or if truth and justice and beauty are to prevail.
Again therefore it is quite natural that we should hear a demand for a more extensive use of these powers of ours. The ships and ploughs and illuminants of a hundred years ago were made by the same men, or the same generations of men, as the religions and polities and moralities of the time. Why assume that the wisdom of the race was almost infallible in its spiritual and more difficult creations, but capable of enormous improvement on the material side? Conservatism, as anything more than an attitude of caution and prudence, has not a plausible air.
It is well also to regard the essential or characteristic line of human evolution. Apart from a few who are caught by a transient attempt to glorify instinct, we agree that the development of intelligence is one of the main sources of progress. Now this great and general awakening of intelligence in recent decades was bound to lead to a good deal of challenging of old traditions. That was precisely why the grandfathers of our bishops and peers opposed it. This higher intelligence of the race is now assisted in its decisions by a vastly greater and more accurate knowledge of man and the universe than our grandparents had; and the cheapening of literature dimly conveys this knowledge to millions who were left out of account when the traditional maps of life were drafted. The artisan discusses economics and theology. The Tonga Islander works out mathematical problems. I met a pure-blooded negro, with a European degree in philosophy, who told me that he had been forced to resign his chair in an African Mohammedan college because of his advanced ideas! Once I discussed with a group of miners industrial questions and religion from twelve to three in the morning, over pots of beer, in a little inn on the west coast of New Zealand, a hundred miles from anything like a town.
It is quite impossible for this spreading and better informed intelligence to bow humbly to the ideas of an earlier generation. It is going to think for itself, at all events. The old traditions must be revised throughout. Revision is not particularly dangerous except to errors. And already we have discovered that our political and religious and social oracles have been teaching a good deal of error. We begin to suspect that many things besides the divine right of kings and the eternal torment of the wicked may not be strictly accurate. We had better reconsider all our ways of living.
The second permanent strain of human evolution is the development of fine sentiment. The notion that the world is becoming more preponderantly intellectual, and that progress along our present lines means a limitation of sentiment, is inaccurate. We are working toward a healthy equilibrium. Sentimental people — those in whom a starving of intellect or disuse of muscle has surcharged the nervous system with morbid energy — will become more balanced, more intellectual. Ancient phrases and modern shibboleths will not be able to induce in them an instinctive warmth or agitation: they will have to pass the bar of reason before they reach what one might call the executive department of personality. But sentiment — deep and healthy feeling — has a precious use in life. The development of fine sentiment is as necessary as the cultivation of reason to the advance of man and of civilisation. We find this illustrated in all the older civilisations when they reach their highest point. We are picking up this strain of development today, and, since civilisation is now too widely diffused ever to perish again, we may assume that it will continue. Now this finer sentiment of our time demands the revision of our traditions and institutions no less imperiously than our higher intelligence does. We cannot leave behind the callousness and brutality of the Middle Ages and at the same time retain medieval practices. Intellectually and emotionally we are improving, and we must expect that, as our finer powers grow, there will be an increasing demand for revision and reconstruction. As Mr. Watson finely says:
“ Guests of the ages, at to-morrow’s door
This is, I think, a correct analysis of the innovating spirit of modern times. These general considerations to which it is due are quite beyond discussion. One feels that one is almost perpetrating platitudes in describing them. In fact, we would to-day find only a negligible number of people who oppose progress and innovation altogether. They usually oppose it in one or two departments of life, and quite warmly applaud it in others. A Socialist-Ritualist clergyman, for instance, fiercely demands advance in the economic field, yet fences his own department of life with the most rigorous warnings against innovating trespassers. A Rationalist-Individualist feels that the Church is the most obvious and urgent field for innovation, and at the same time guards his economic world against it with a flaming sword. A Suffragist pours fiery scorn on our obstinate conservatism in regard to the franchise, and then discovers an even more obstinate and entirely sacred conservatism when other women claim something more than political emancipation. It is this very general sectarianism which compels us to review the philosophy of revolt. These principles apply to the whole of life. All our institutions must be critically examined. The searchlight will not injure them if they are sound.
But how comes this sweetly reasonable philosophy to be converted into that passion for reform, that mordant and exasperating attack on institutions, which gives a special complexion to the literature of our time? For precisely the same reason as the invisible electric current leaps into incandescence when it passes through the sluggish particles of the filament of carbon or tungsten: resistance. The old faith is growing dim in our minds, and we have a suspicion that the thousands of men and women who, each night, terminate a life of pain or struggle or burden, will never see the sun rise again, on this or any other planet. We know that every decade in which we put off, with worn and hollow phrases, the abandonment of old errors, sees another generation pass away with just the same scars and traces of pain as those which scored the hearts of the dead two, and four, and six thousand years ago. We are vividly conscious that, quite apart from the myriads whose lives were embittered by poverty, or war, or a galling marriage-yoke, or the tyranny of some old tradition, there are further and vaster myriads who, whatever comfort they knew, might have been far happier, and now the sun has gone down on them for ever. There is real and very serious ground for impatience. The acreage of squalor and misery and grossness is still appalling, and on every land lies the crushing burden of militarism; and this fearful visitation of war reminds us of the incalculable periodic cost of our folly. The soil of the planet is wet with blood and tears, and a great part of this inhuman rain might be arrested. Much has been done: it is just that which stings. You cannot look back on the darkness from which the race has issued without perceiving that man has the power to transform the face of the earth: without entertaining a reasoned and coldly intellectual conviction that a day will yet dawn on this planet when laughter, as of children on May morning, will ring from pole to pole, and life, for all its work, will be a holiday. And when this reasoned and just belief encounters the sullen or selfish indifference of men and women to their creative power, their insensitiveness to the evils that they or their fellows endure, it glows and spits fire.
It is quite easy to apologise for strong language: much easier than to justify the general lack of it. And this impatience cannot be rebuked by reminding us that the remedy of some of our ills is very obscure; because the majority of people are indifferent to the very idea of reform. They shoulder burdens which they might at any moment lay aside for ever. Some of the greatest reforms that are pressed on us are not obscured by any serious controversy. Yet in every civilised nation the mass of the people are inert and indifferent. Some even make a pretence of justifying their inertness. Why, they ask, should we stir at all? Is there such a thing as a duty to improve the earth? What is the meaning or purpose of life? Or has it a purpose?
One generally finds that this kind of reasoning is merely a piece of controversial athletics or a thin excuse for idleness. People tell you that the conflict of science and religion — it would be better to say, the conflict of modern culture and ancient traditions — has robbed life of its plain significance. The men who, like Tolstoi, seriously urge this point fail to appreciate the modern outlook on life. Certainly modern culture — science, history, philosophy, and art — finds no purpose in life: that is to say, no purpose eternally fixed and to be discovered by man. A great chemist said a few years ago that he could imagine “a series of lucky accidents” — the chance blowing by the wind of certain chemicals into pools on the primitive earth — accounting for the first appearance of life; and one might not unjustly sum up the influences which have lifted those early germs to the level of conscious beings as a similar series of lucky accidents.
But it is sheer affectation to say that this demoralises us. If there is no purpose impressed on the universe, or prefixed to the development of humanity, it follows only that humanity may choose its own purpose and set up its own goal; and the most elementary sense of order will teach us that this choice must be social, not merely individual. In whatever measure ill-controlled individuals may yield to personal impulses or attractions, the aim of the race must be a collective aim. I do not mean an austere demand of self-sacrifice from the individual, but an adjustment — as genial and generous as possible — of individual variations for common good. Otherwise life becomes discordant and futile, and the pain and waste react on each individual. So we raise again, in the twentieth century, the old question of “the greatest good,” which men discussed in the Stoa Poikile and the suburban groves of Athens, in the cool atria of patrician mansions on the Palatine and the Pincian, in the Museum at Alexandria, and the schools which Omar Khayyám frequented, in the straw-strewn schools of the Middle Ages and the opulent chambers of Cosmo de’ Medici.
We answer, as men did in all those earlier debates, according to our temperament. One says culture, another character, another happiness, another pleasure, another efficiency. This discussion is often a mere exercise of wit, and very often we use a quite arbitrary standard in fixing what is “best,” or the greatest good. Probably the modern mind will put to itself the plain question: “What is the best purpose for the race, in its own interest, to adopt?” As we are not now clear that there are any other interests to be consulted, this is the obvious form of the question. And when we do put it in this form, the old conflict begins to disappear. We see that a comprehensive ideal, embracing all the classical answers, commends itself. We want more — we want as much as possible — culture, character, happiness, pleasure, and efficiency. We want a quicker and fuller development of man’s highest and richest resources. But, if you look closely into it, there is one ultimate and commanding element in this broad ideal. It is happiness. Culture is a necessity of the race and luxury of the few. Character is supremely important, but you have now to prove to men that it is important. We do not bow any longer to arbitrary commands and categorical imperatives and Stoic laws. We have to be convinced that the cultivation of a high type of character will lessen suffering and brighten the earth. Pleasure, again, is, as Epicurus insisted, only a part of a large ideal of happiness. There is, in fact, no ground on which you can appeal to the mass of men to-day in favour of cultivation or idealism except this ground that it makes for greater happiness: and on that ground you may safely appeal to the whole race.
Sometimes, when you ascend the slopes of a range of hills, — the idea occurred to me during a walk from Chamonix to Montanvert, — the mists close round you, and the guiding peaks and contours are lost. Then, perhaps, some point breaks through the clouds, and you stride on confidently. This must apply to the most sceptical or nebulous mind of our generation. The old dream of a cooperative effort to improve life, to bring happiness to as many minds of mortals as we can reach, shines above all the mists of the day. Through the ruins of creeds and philosophies, which have for ages disdained it, we are retracing our steps toward that height — just as the Athenians did two thousand years ago. It rests on no metaphysic, no sacred legend, no disputable tradition — nothing that scepticism can corrode or advancing knowledge undermine. Its foundations are the fundamental and unchanging impulses of our nature. Its features are as clear and attractive to the child as to the philosopher. Philosophers will, of course, declare it superficial; but we may remind them that all their supposed deeper probing of reality, from Pythagoras to Bergson, has ended in a confusion of contradictory guesses. Churchmen will declare with horror that it is “materialistic”; and we may remind them that for fifteen centuries they have taught Europe to place its highest good in happiness. If the happiness they promised is getting doubtful, we make sure of what we can. In truth, however, no nobler aim ever inspired action, and none is so fitted to appeal to modern man. It is, in fact, the mainspring of nearly all the progressive activity of our time. The more doubtful all else becomes, the more determined men and women are to be happy in this world. Thrones and creeds and institutions, even moral codes, are brought to judgment to-day before that ideal. It is more profitable to judge the living than the dead.
This ideal is the chief inspiration of the rebellious temper of our age. The revolt which burns in so much of the abler literature of our time is an unselfish revolt, or non-selfish revolt: it is an outcome of that larger spirit which conceives the self to be a part of the general social organism, and it is therefore neither egoistic nor altruistic. It finds a sanction in the new intelligence, and an inspiration in the finer sentiments, of our generation, but the glow which chiefly illumines it is the glow of the great vision of a happier earth. It speaks of the claims of truth and justice, and assails untruth and injustice, for these are elemental principles of social life; but it appeals more confidently to the warmer sympathy which is linking the scattered children of the race, and it urges all to co-operate in the restriction of suffering and the creation of happiness. The advance guard of the race, the men and women in whom mental alertness is associated with fine feeling, cry that they have reached Pisgah’s slope; and in increasing numbers men and women are pressing on to see if it be really the Promised Land. That is the spirit of the reform-movement of our times. Popes anathematise our age, and the clergy of all sects bemoan its “materialism,” yet it is exulting in a wider and higher idealism than any that ever yet stirred the heart of man. For we now know from what dark and brutal origins we came, and we feel that, if we advance only as we are advancing, we may reach any height that any prophet ever yet saw in his visions.
It is very difficult to avoid what seem to be rhetorical phrases in describing this age of ours: the age which some profess to find prosy and materialistic in comparison with the earlier age when a handful of plethoric land-owners ruled England, and little children worked in filthy rooms for twelve hours a day, and cut-throats, in most charming costumes, slew each other in the fields of London. I have not the least desire to use rhetoric; I do but express my feeling, and what I take to be the feeling of “advanced” people generally, as it comes to me. But in this poetry there is the solidity of scientific prose. Some time ago I sailed slowly toward Teneriffe from the south. Eighty miles away, on a fine morning, the summit of the Peak showed its delicate contour in the clouds, hardly distinguishable from them. We thought it an illusion, a simulating cloud, because far below the summit the blue sky seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon. The Peak floated in the air. But, as we drew nearer, the blue band below it grew thinner, and at last it disclosed the massive bulk of the supporting mountain.
Speaking as a sober student of history and science, I say that this dream of a brighter and happier earth rests on no less solid a foundation. We see primitive man, blindly, and with infinite slowness, move towards civilisation: we see civilisation slowly, with many a tragic interruption, advance toward the modern age: and now we see the pace quicken enormously, and we find a new consciousness of power and a deliberate aim at higher things bear the race onward. The reformer’s belief in the future is a scientific deduction from the past.
The failure of the mass of people to co-operate in the realisation of this ideal is due, not to indolence or stupidity, but to the obsessing influence of the old traditions. They choke the fires of the mind: they make us insensible to the real enormity of a great deal of our social arrangements. Hence it is that the reformer’s appeal is cast so frequently in a negative or aggressive form. The most powerful thing in our world is, not truth, but untruth; and the most important thing in the world is to assail it. “Great is truth, and it will prevail,” said an ancient writer. But the civilisation which gave birth to that sentiment died, and all its promising young truths perished with it, and Europe fell under the rule of lies for more than a thousand years. Untruth is millennia older than truth. Its roots run deep into the flesh of the heart, while the rootlets of truth are struggling for a frail clasp in the intellect. Great is untruth, and it will prevail — unless it is attacked unceasingly. No untruth ever died a natural death. Being the sacred truth of yesterday, it is usually entrenched in powerful corporations, embodied in the law and life of nations, enshrined in the tenacious affections of the millions. At one time you incurred sentence of death if you challenged it: now you incur slander, misrepresentation, and mockery. The race has been made docile to it by a kind of negative Eugenic — perhaps we ought to say Cacogenic — selection. Yet nearly everything which the majority venerate as truth to-day began its career as heresy and will end it as lie.
So the first task of the well-wisher of mankind is to distinguish truth from untruth in our traditions. The story of man is a long story of the tyranny of consecrated shams, with occasional intervals of rebellion and advance to a higher stage. Rebellion is the salt of the earth. There comes a time in the history of every civilisation when the mind of a few rises high enough to survey critically that stream of traditions in which the majority lazily float. Then comes the inevitable revolt; hence the close kinship which we feel across the ages with “the Preacher,” with Socrates, with Omar Khayyám, with Erasmus, with Molière. We are at the same stage of evolution, with the difference that we moderns have an immense mass of knowledge of history and pre-history to aid us in testing the value of our traditions. Already we have discarded scores of old dogmas: in religion, politics, education, law, and every department of our common life. It would be folly to attempt to fence off any province of our life from this critical scrutiny. And since we obstinately retain many traditions which a very high proportion of properly educated people regard as unsound and mischievous, since these traditions are the chief obstacle to the advance of the race, one of the most pressing needs of our time is, surely, a stern campaign for the abolition of this tyranny of shams.
- This chapter is, with a few alterations, reproduced from The English Review, October 1914.