The Tyranny of Shams/Preface

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This book is a frank criticism of most of the dominant ideas and institutions of our time: a confession of faith in nearly all the more daring heresies which hold, so to say, the firing line of our literature: a conception of a new social order and new planetary arrangement. It is therefore candidly egoistic, and I should like to explain the circumstances in which it was designed and written.

It was conceived, and much of it was written, during the long voyage from Australia to England. At that time I had issued, if I may include the introduction to English readers of foreign writers, some fifty publications, and in these I had generally described remote periods of history, or even remoter periods of the earth’s story or distant regions of the universe. Many had asked me to tell them things more intimate and important than the way in which stars were formed, or the manners of extinct Dinosaurs and ancient empresses: asked if thirty years’ study of philosophy, science, and history had given me no interest in, or light upon, the problems of the hour. In Australasia this request was made more insistently than ever. Our ancient prejudices have been transplanted into the soil of the new world, and they have thriven there, like the gorse, the sparrow, the rabbit, and so many other pests which sentimental colonists have introduced in order to remind them of “home.” But new ideas also have been imported, and they find a rich soil in the free, unconventional, enterprising colonial mind. Men and women are asking the same questions there as in London and New York.

The general drift or implication of these questions obsessed me daily during the slow traverse of the Southern Ocean. Day after day the great liner visibly rounded this vast ball of metal which we call our earth; and to me there is no more impressive symbol than this of the power and the future of man. Some complain that at sea they feel the earth and man and man’s concerns made trivial by the great fires which blaze through the darker sky. But largeness is not greatness, and a vast prairie in some inaccessible region does not make less precious the little plot of earth at your door that you can make beautiful. Your predominant feeling, when you round the globe and see with your own eye its limitations, is one of power. This sphere, you feel, is the principality of man; and there never was a power so despotic and far-reaching as the power of a united race would be. You feel as if the earth could be embraced in the arms of a giant, and humanity is the giant. If men were agreed in their designs, the earth would be as clay in the hand of the potter. It would prove as passive and tractable as the child’s ball of plasticine —if all, or the great part of, men and women were agreed as to the shape it was desirable to impose on it. In our age differences of ideal restrain the hand and prevent us from giving a fairer face to the earth. The power of a united mankind would be something akin to omnipotence. Every man or woman who has seen the earth with this larger vision must seethe with impatience to end this conflict of old traditions and new ideas which paralyses our hands; to do what he or she can to accelerate that final harmony of conviction which will set free the fingers of the Great Potter. That is the controlling sentiment of this little book.

It happens that, before the book reaches the public, one of those traditions which it assails has spread a ghastly devastation over the face of the earth. For nearly twenty years I have used my slender opportunities as speaker and writer to denounce the military machine: to imagine the mighty resources we waste on militarism and war transferred to those enterprises which seek to brighten the earth and make the hearts of men and women lighter. Now the little sermon, which many feeble voices were preaching, is taken up by an orator whose voice thunders from pole to pole, whose words are blood-curdling realities. Ten thousand million sterling, perhaps, poured into the sea in eighteen months: ten million men, perhaps, prematurely blasted off the earth or stricken for life: and a trail of blood and tears and misery that all the mighty fertility of the earth will take a generation to obliterate! Nor does this outpour of horror merely mean that one feature of our life needs reconsideration. We could not have retained this military machine, with its ever-present danger of an appalling calamity, if our minds were generally sane, alert, unclogged by shams.

One inquires how it is that a generation which boasts of its wisdom and humanity can retain this worst survival of barbarism, and one finds that the evil is connected with a dozen other evils and protected by a general mental debility. The habit of tracing this calamity to the peculiar criminality of another nation, and dwelling only on our own heroism and self-sacrifice in meeting this menace, is in itself a very grave danger. We may be entirely certain that, as long as we retain the military machinery for settling quarrels, there will be wars. How came the machinery to linger amongst us in the twentieth century? At once we light upon a dozen other disorders of our life. This remissness in civilising international intercourse argues a grave indifference to a most important task on the part of our political servants, and an equally grave absence of pressure and direction on the part of their supporters. It reveals a dangerously slovenly condition of our industrial world, a very serious defect in our educational system, a standing menace in the encouraged thoughtlessness of the mass of our people, a general flabbiness, haziness, and anæmia of what may be called the intellectual part of our public life.

This is true of all nations,—it may be the turn of the United States, or Norway, or Argentina tomorrow,—but it is most seriously true of England. Do not let us fuddle our minds with the kind of rhetoric one addresses to schoolboys. We have, in the first year of the war, betrayed a sluggishness, a lack of foresight and initiative, a feebleness of organisation, which ought to sober any race, however wealthy. Our Government knew, or ought to have known, since the spring of 1912, that just this war was threatening us; and, when it occurred, they made a virtue of the fact that we were “the least prepared nation in Europe.” They took nine months to begin to organise our resources, or to perceive that it was necessary to do so. Plainly, there is something profoundly, comprehensively wrong with our public life. We shall “muddle through,” because we have the resources, and because the Allies outnumber their opponents by fifty per cent. But if in a future war we are compelled to face a numerically equal opponent, England will, if she retains these faults, see her royal standard in the dust. As it is, the cost of our ineptitude will be prodigious.

So I am confirmed in my design to declare what seems to me to be wrong with our life. I choose the form of a direct challenge of old traditions mainly because they so oppress and benumb the public mind that new ideals do not get a fair consideration. But it will be found that behind the series of challenges there is a series of affirmations, and these make up a constructive ideal of life. Probably few will accept this ideal in its entirety, though each chapter advocates a reform which has millions of adherents. It is, however, not based on any ’ism, least of all on dogmatism. There is a view of, or attitude toward, life expounded in the first chapter, and behind each particular claim. But each section deals with a specific department of life and must find its justification within the limits of that department. If any regret that the work does not embody a profound philosophy of life, I must reply that I passed through philosophy thirty years ago, and came out into science and history in search of reality: and that philosophers do not seem to me to be either agreed among themselves or in any close relationship to the human problems I discuss.

Many will advise me, too, that a man would do well to conceal the more offensive of his heresies, in order to gain a more patient hearing for the others. That is the usual and prudent practice, no doubt; but this book has been written in a mood of fiery impatience with untruth, and this has forbidden compromise. Night by night, as I sit on the deck of the ship, I watch the dark purple pall drop swiftly over the last flush of the tropical sky; and I know that, each night, it shrouds the faces of thousands of men, women, and children whose chance of happiness is gone for ever. We are arguing to-day about man’s ailments just as the Greeks were arguing in the Agora at Athens two thousand years ago, or as men argued in the garden of Plato or of Epicurus. Meantime almost countless millions have lived in pain and squalor, and died in delusive hope, under the curse of those ancient traditions which we will not discard. Therefore I am impatient: I cannot sit in quiet enjoyment of the sunshine that is granted me. It will be found that no man appraises more highly than I the advance we have made in modern times, and that I nowhere exaggerate the darker features of life. If at times I write fiercely, cynically, even bitterly, it is not from pessimism, but from fulness and fire of optimism. My controlling thought is, as I said, a consciousness of our power.

There are two types of people into whose hands this book may fall. The first is the man or woman whose nerves must not be disturbed by the spectacle of the misery of less fortunate beings: who finds life good, and instinctively resents any proposals to tamper with its foundations. These people are no more open to blame, as a rule, than the prophet is entitled to praise for his ardour. We do not choose our temperament, whatever else we choose. But one does not appeal to these comfortable people. They would have refined and pleasant things about them always, and they shrink from the vaults where, they dimly know, ugly and sordid and writhing things are crowded together: lest their glance fall on some yellow and distorted face whose hollow cheeks, or eyes bloodshot with pain or brutality, would disturb the even pleasure of their lives. So be it. Let it be written in stark letters on their marble stones, when the last peach has dropped from their relaxing fingers: My ideal was to enjoy life, and to let the devil take the hindmost.

Do not let me be misunderstood. The enjoyment of life is the supreme ideal advocated in this book. I loathe asceticism, either Christian or Stoic. But I write for the second type of man or woman: the people who are strong and healthy enough to enjoy every pleasure that life affords, yet keep some thought for the unhappiness of others: who think it a normal part even of a pleasant and refined life, especially a leisured life, to spare some hours for seeking how the world may be improved for less fortunate folk: who, precisely because they love the sunlight, ask if it cannot be devised that all men and women and children shall have a larger share of it. Their chief difficulty is that, unhappily, the new prophets are as discordant as the old. A few centuries ago, when you crossed London Bridge, or the Pont Neuf at Paris, or the Ponte Vecchio at Florence, a score of rival quacks or charlatans (in the literal sense) cried in your ears the virtues of their conflicting remedies. To-day just so many conflicting social physicians cry their wares in the streets. They oppose each other almost as bitterly as they oppose the older traditions. How shall a busy man or woman decide among them? What fixed and unalterable principle, in this world of dissolving creeds, can you adopt for the testing of their truth or untruth?

A very grave and sincere difficulty. Therefore, again, I have chosen to attack what seem to me to be shams: which I would define as untruths that the millions venerate as truths. The work of reform will proceed very slowly and very precariously until these are resolutely discredited and dethroned. In each case, it is true, it will be found that the dethronement of an error enthrones a truth; but I insist that we will pay no grave and practical attention to constructive schemes until we fully realise the blunders and brutalities of our present civilisation. The discord of our social prophets does not excuse us from perceiving these.

As to fixed and unalterable principles, it seems to me that two, at least, are not disturbed by the ground-quakes of our time. Perhaps they stand with more conspicuous firmness when so many other “eternal verities” have fallen. The first is the principle of truthfulness or sincerity. Of this it need be said only that, if there are any parts of our human tradition which the larger mind of our age discovers to be untrue, they ought to be rejected at once; and the more closely they are woven into our social fabric, the more speedily and more apprehensively they ought to be torn out. The second and greater principle is the aim of arresting suffering and diffusing happiness as far as possible. I will consider this presently, and merely state here that these chapters have been written solely in the name and under the inspiration of that ideal. And if my words are at times violent, the violence is due solely to a great eagerness for the speedier coming of a brighter and more intelligent age and to a sincere abhorrence of cant and shams and all that lengthens this grey twilight of civilisation.

J. M.