Post-Prandial Philosophy Part 2

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A sportive friend of mine, a mighty golfer, is fond of saying, “You Radicals want to play the game without the rules.” To which I am accustomed mildly to retort, “Not at all; but we think the rules unfair, and so we want to see them altered.”

Now life is a very peculiar game, which differs in many important respects even from compulsory football. The Rugby scrimmage is mere child’s play by the side of it. There’s no possibility of shirking it. A medical certificate won’t get you off; whether you like it or not, play you must in your appointed order. We are all unwilling compet.i.tors.

n.o.body asks our naked little souls beforehand whether they would prefer to be born into the game or to remain, unfleshed, in the limbo of non-existence. w.i.l.l.y nilly, every one of us is thrust into the world by an irresponsible act of two previous players; and once there, we must play out the set as best we may to the bitter end, however little we like it or the rules that order it.

That, it must be admitted, makes a grave distinction from the very outset between the game of human life and any other game with which we are commonly acquainted. It also makes it imperative upon the framers of the rules so to frame them that no one player shall have an unfair or unjust advantage over any of the others. And since the penalty of bad play, or bad success in the match, is death, misery, starvation, it behoves the rule-makers to be more scrupulously particular as to fairness and equity than in any other game like cricket or tennis. It behoves them to see that all start fair, and that no hapless beginner is unduly handicapped. To compel men to take part in a match for dear life, whether they wish it or not, and then to insist that some of them shall wield bats and some mere broom-sticks, irrespective of height, weight, age, or bodily infirmity, is surely not fair. It justifies the committee in calling for a revision.

But things are far worse than even that in the game as actually played in Europe. What shall we say of rules which decide dogmatically that one set of players are hereditarily ent.i.tled to be always batting, while another set, less lucky, have to field for ever, and to be fined or imprisoned for not catching? What shall we say of rules which give one group a perpetual right to free lunch in the tent, while the remainder have to pick up what they can for themselves by gleaning among the stubble? How justify the principle in accordance with which the captain on one side has an exclusive claim to the common ground of the club, and may charge every player exactly what he likes for the right to play upon it?–especially when the choice lies between playing on such terms, or being cast into the void, yourself and your family. And then to think that the ground thus tabooed by one particular member may be all Sutherlandshire, or, still worse, all Westminster! Decidedly, these rules call for instant revision; and the unprivileged players must be submissive indeed who consent to put up with them.

Friends and fellow-members, let us cry with one voice, “The links for the players!”

Once more, just look at the singular rule in our own All England club, by which certain a.s.sorted members possess a hereditary right to veto all decisions of the elective committee, merely because they happen to be their fathers’ sons, and the club long ago very foolishly permitted the like privilege to their ancestors! That is an irrational interference with the liberty of the players which hardly anybody nowadays ventures to defend in principle, and which is only upheld in some half-hearted way (save in the case of that fossil anachronism, the Duke of Argyll) by supposed arguments of convenience. It won’t last long now; there is talk in the committee of “mending or ending it.” It shows the long-suffering nature of the poor blind players at this compulsory game of national football that they should ever for one moment permit so monstrous an a.s.sumption–permit the idea that one single player may wield a substantive voice and vote to outweigh tens of thousands of his fellow-members!

These questions of procedure, however, are after all small matters. It is the real hardships of the game that most need to be tackled. Why should one player be born into the sport with a prescriptive right to fill some easy place in the field, while another has to f.a.g on from morning to night in the most uninteresting and fatiguing position? Why should _pate de foie gras_ and champagne-cup in the tent be so unequally distributed? Why should those who have made fewest runs and done no fielding be admitted to partake of these luxuries, free of charge, while those who have borne the brunt of the fight, those who have suffered from the heat of the day, those who have contributed most to the honour of the victory, are turned loose, unfed, to do as they can for themselves by hook or by crook somehow? These are the questions some of us players are now beginning to ask ourselves; and we don’t find them efficiently answered by the bald statement that we “want to play the game without the rules,” and that we ought to be precious glad the legislators of the club haven’t made them a hundred times harder against us.

No, no; the rules themselves must be altered. Time was, indeed, when people used to think they were made and ordained by divine authority.

“c.u.m privilegio” was the motto of the captains. But we know very well now that every club settles its own standing orders, and that it can alter and modify them as fundamentally as it pleases. Lots of funny old saws are still uttered upon this subject–“There must always be rich and poor;” “You can’t interfere with economical laws;” “If you were to divide up everything to-morrow, at the end of a fortnight you’d find the same differences and inequalities as ever.” The last-named argument (I believe it considers itself by courtesy an argument) is one which no self-respecting Radical should so much as deign to answer. n.o.body that I ever heard of for one moment proposed to “divide up everything,” or, for that matter, anything: and the imputation that somebody did or does is a proof either of intentional malevolence or of cra.s.s stupidity. Neither should be encouraged; and you encourage them by pretending to take them seriously. It is the initial injustices of the game that we Radicals object to–the injustices which prevent us from all starting fair and having our even chance of picking up a livelihood. We don’t want to “divide up everything”–a most futile proceeding; but we do want to untie the legs and release the arms of the handicapped players. To drop metaphor at last, it is the conditions we complain about. Alter the conditions, and there would be no need for division, summary or gradual.

The game would work itself out spontaneously without your intervention.

The injustice of the existing set of rules simply appals the Radical.

Yet oddly enough, this injustice itself appeals rather to the comparative looker-on than to the heavily-handicapped players in person.

They, poor creatures, dragging their log in patience, have grown so accustomed to regarding the world as another man’s oyster, that they put up uncomplainingly for the most part with the most patent inequalities.

Perhaps ‘tis their want of imagination that makes them unable to conceive any other state of things as even possible–like the dog who accepts kicking as the natural fate of doghood. At any rate, you will find, if you look about you, that the chief reformers are not, as a rule, the ill-used themselves, but the sensitive and thinking souls who hate and loathe the injustice with which others are treated.

Most of the best Radicals I have known were men of gentle birth and breeding. Not all: others, just as earnest, just as eager, just as chivalrous, sprang from the Yet the gently-reared preponderate.

It is a common Tory taunt to say that the battle is one between the Haves and the Have-nots. That is by no means true. It is between the selfish Haves, on one side, and the unselfish Haves, who wish to see something done for the Have-nots, on the other. As for the poor Have-nots themselves, they are mostly inarticulate. Indeed, the Tory almost admits as much when he alters his tone and describes the sympathising and active few as “paid agitators.”

For myself, however, I am a born Conservative. I hate to see any old custom or practice changed; unless, indeed, it is either foolish or wicked–like most existing ones.



One great English thinker and artist once tried the rash experiment of being true to himself–of saying out boldly, without fear or reserve, the highest and n.o.blest and best that was in him. He gave us the most exquisite lyrics in the English language; he moulded the thought of our first youth as no other poet has ever yet moulded it; he became the spiritual father of the richest souls in two succeeding generations of Englishmen. And what reward did he get for it? He was expelled from his university. He was hounded out of his country. He was deprived of his own children. He was denied the common appeal to the law and courts of justice. He was drowned, an exile, in a distant sea, and burned in solitude on a foreign sh.o.r.e. And after his death he was vilified and calumniated by wretched penny-a-liners, or (worse insult still) apologised for, with half-hearted shrugs, by lukewarm advocates. The purest in life and the most unselfish in purpose of all mankind, he was persecuted alive with the utmost rancour of hate, and pursued when dead with the vilest shafts of malignity. He never even knew in his scattered grave the good he was to do to later groups of thinkers.

It was a n.o.ble example, of course; but not, you will admit, an alluring one for others to follow.

“Be true to yourself,” say the copy-book moralists, “and you may be sure the result will at last be justified.” No doubt; but in how many centuries? And what sort of life will you lead yourself, meanwhile, for your allotted s.p.a.ce of threescore years and ten, unless haply hanged, or burned, or imprisoned before it? What the copy-book moralists mean is merely this–that sooner or later your principles will triumph, which may or may not be the case according to the nature of the principles.

But even suppose they do, are you to ignore yourself in the interim–you, a human being with emotions, sensations, domestic affections, and, in the majority of instances, wife and children on whom to expend them? Why should it be calmly taken for granted by the world that if you have some new and true thing to tell humanity (which humanity, of course, will toss back in your face with contumely and violence) you are bound to blurt it out, with childish unreserve, regardless of consequences to yourself and to those who depend upon you?

Why demand of genius or exceptional ability a gratuitous sacrifice which you would deprecate as wrong and unjust to others in the ordinary citizen? For the genius, too, is a man, and has his feelings.

The fact is, society considers that in certain instances it has a right to expect the thinker will martyrise himself on its account, while it stands serenely by and heaps f.a.ggots on the pile, with every mark of contempt and loathing. But society is mistaken. No man is bound to martyrise himself; in a great many cases a man is bound to do the exact opposite. He has given hostages to Fortune, and his first duty is to the hostages. “We ask you for bread,” his children may well say, “and you give us a n.o.ble moral lesson. We ask you for clothing, and you supply us with a beautiful poetical fancy.” This is not according to bargain. Wife and children have a first mortgage on a man’s activities; society has only a right to contingent remainders.

A great many sensible men who had truths of deep import to deliver to the world must have recognised these facts in all times and places, and must have held their tongues accordingly. Instead of speaking out the truths that were in them, they must have kept their peace, or have confined themselves severely to the ordinary plat.i.tudes of their age and nation. Why ruin yourself by announcing what you feel and believe, when all the reward you will get for it in the end will be social ostracism, if not even the rack, the stake, or the pillory? The Sh.e.l.leys and Rousseaus there’s no holding, of course; they _will_ run right into it; but the Goethes–oh, no, they keep their secret. Indeed, I hold it as probable that the vast majority of men far in advance of their times have always held their tongues consistently, save for mere common babble, on Lord Chesterfield’s principle that “Wise men never say.”

The _role_ of prophet is thus a thankless and difficult one. Nor is it quite certainly of real use to the community. For the prophet is generally too much ahead of his times. He discounts the future at a ruinous rate, and he takes the consequences. If you happen ever to have read the Old Testament you must have noticed that the prophets had generally a hard time of it.

The leader is a very different stamp of person. _He_ stands well abreast of his contemporaries, and just half a pace in front of them; and he has power to persuade even the inertia of humanity into taking that one half-step in advance he himself has already made bold to adventure. His post is honoured, respected, remunerated. But the prophet gets no thanks, and perhaps does mankind no benefit. He sees too quick. And there can be very little good indeed in so seeing. If one of us had been an astronomer, and had discovered the laws of Kepler, Newton, and Laplace in the thirteenth century, I think he would have been wise to keep the discovery to himself for a few hundred years or so. Otherwise, he would have been burned for his trouble. Galileo, long after, tried part of the experiment a decade or so too soon, and got no good by it.

But in moral and social matters the danger is far graver. I would say to every aspiring youth who sees some political or economical or ethical truth quite clearly: “Keep it dark! Don’t mention it! n.o.body will listen to you; and you, who are probably a person of superior insight and higher moral aims than the ma.s.s, will only destroy your own influence for good by premature declarations. The world will very likely come round of itself to your views in the end; but if you tell them too soon, you will suffer for it in person, and will very likely do nothing to help on the revolution in thought that you contemplate. For thought that is too abruptly ahead of the ma.s.s never influences humanity.”

“But sometimes the truth will out in spite of one!” Ah, yes, that’s the worst of it. Do as I say, not as I do. If possible, repress it.

It is a n.o.ble and beautiful thing to be a martyr, especially if you are a martyr in the cause of truth, and not, as is often the case, of some debasing and degrading superst.i.tion. But n.o.body has a right to demand of you that you should be a martyr. And some people have often a right to demand that you should resolutely refuse the martyr’s crown on the ground that you have contracted prior obligations, inconsistent with the purely personal luxury of martyrdom. ‘Tis a luxury for a few. It befits only the bachelor, the unattached, and the economically spareworthy.

“These be pessimistic p.r.o.nouncements,” you say. Well, no, not exactly.

For, after all, we must never shut our eyes to the actual; and in the world as it is, meliorism, not optimism, is the true opposite of pessimism. Optimist and pessimist are both alike in a sense, seeing they are both conservative; they sit down contented–the first with the smug contentment that says “All’s well; I have enough; why this fuss about others?” the second with the contentment of blank despair that says, “All’s hopeless; all’s wrong; why try uselessly to mend it?” The meliorist att.i.tude, on the contrary, is rather to say, “Much is wrong; much painful; what can we do to improve it?” And from this point of view there is something we can all do to make martyrdom less inevitable in the end, for the man who has a thought, a discovery, an idea, to tell us. Such men are rare, and their thought, when they produce it, is sure to be unpalatable. For, if it were otherwise, it would be thought of our own type–familiar, ba.n.a.l, commonplace, unoriginal. It would encounter no resistance, as it thrilled on its way through our brain, from established errors. What the genius and the prophet are there for is just that–to make us listen to unwelcome truths, to compel us to hear, to drive awkward facts straight home with sledge-hammer force to the unwilling hearts and brains of us. Not what _you_ want to hear, or what _I_ want to hear, is good and useful for us; but what we _don’t_ want to hear, what we can’t bear to think, what we hate to believe, what we fight tooth and nail against. The man who makes us listen to _that_ is the seer and the prophet; he comes upon us like Sh.e.l.ley, or Whitman, or Ibsen, and plumps down horrid truths that half surprise, half disgust us. He shakes us out of our lethargy. To such give ear, though they say what shocks you. Weigh well their hateful ideas. Avoid the vulgar vice of sneering and carping at them. Learn to examine their nude thought without shrinking, and examine it all the more carefully when it most repels you. Naked verity is an acquired taste; it is never beautiful at first sight to the unaccustomed vision. Remember that no question is finally settled; that no question is wholly above consideration; that what you cherish as holiest is most probably wrong; and that in social and moral matters especially (where men have been longest ruled by pure superst.i.tions) new and startling forms of thought have the highest _a priori_ probability in their favour. Dismiss your idols. Give every opinion its fair chance of success–especially when it seems to you both wicked and ridiculous, recollecting that it is better to let five hundred crude guesses run loose about the world unclad, than to crush one fledgling truth in its callow condition. To the Greeks, foolishness: to the Jews, a stumbling-block. If you can’t be one of the prophets yourself, you can at least abstain from helping to stone them.

Dear me! These reflections to-day are anything but post-prandial. The _gnocchi_ and the olives must certainly have disagreed with me. But perhaps it may some of it be “wrote sarcastic.” I have heard tell there is a thing called irony.



The world has expanded faster in the last thirty years than in any previous age since “the s.p.a.cious days of great Elizabeth.” And with its expansion, of course, our ideas have widened. I believe Europe is now in the midst of just such an outburst of thought and invention as that which followed the discovery of America, and of the new route to India by the Cape of Good Hope. But I don’t want to insist too strongly upon that point, because I know a great many of my contemporaries are deeply hurt by the base and spiteful suggestion that they and their fellows are really quite as good as any fish that ever came out of the sea before them. I only desire now to call attention for a moment to one curious result entailed by this widening of the world upon our literary productivity–a result which, though obvious enough when one comes to look at it, seems to me hitherto to have strangely escaped deliberate notice.

In one word, the point of which I speak is the comparative cosmopolitanisation of letters, and especially the introduction into literary art of the phenomena due to the Clash of Races.

This Clash itself is the one picturesque and novel feature of our otherwise somewhat prosaic and machine-made epoch; and, therefore, it has been eagerly seized upon, with one accord, by all the chief purveyors of recent literature, and especially of fiction. They have espied in it, with technical instinct, the best chance for obtaining that fresh interest which is essential to the success of a work of art.

We were all getting somewhat tired, it must be confessed, of the old places and the old themes. The insipid loves of Anthony Trollope’s blameless young people were beginning to pall upon us. The jaded palate of the Anglo-Celtic race pined for something hot, with a touch of fresh spice in it. It demanded curried fowl and Jamaica peppers. Hence, on the one hand, the sudden vogue of the novelists of the younger countries–Tolstoi and Tourgenieff, Ibsen and Bjornson, Mary Wilkins and Howells–who transplanted us at once into fresh scenes, new people: hence, on the other hand, the tendency on the part of our own latest writers–the Stevensons, the Hall Caines, the Marion Crawfords, the Rider Haggards–to go far afield among the lower races or the later civilisations for the themes of their romances.

Alas, alas, I see breakers before me! Must I pause for a moment in the flowing current of a paragraph to explain, as in an aside, that I include Marion Crawford of set purpose among “our own” late writers, while I count Mary Wilkins and Howells as Transatlantic aliens?

Experience teaches me that I must; else shall I have that annoying animalcule, the microscopic critic, coming down upon me in print with his petty objection that “Mr. Crawford is an American.” Go to, oh, blind one! And Whistler also, I suppose, and Sargent, and, perhaps, Ashmead Bartlett! What! have you read “Sarracinesca” and not learnt that its author is European to the core? ‘Twas for such as you that the Irishman invented his brilliant retort: “And if I was born in a stable would I be a horse?”

Not merely, however, do our younger writers go into strange and novel places for the scenes of their stories; the important point to notice in the present connection is that, consciously or unconsciously to themselves, they have perceived the mighty influence of this Clash of Races, and have chosen the relations of the civilised people with their savage allies, or enemies, or subjects, as the chief theme of their handicraft. ‘Tis a momentous theme, for it encloses in itself half the problems of the future. The old battles are now well-nigh fought out; but new ones are looming ahead for us. The cosmopolitanisation of the world is introducing into our midst strange elements of discord. A conglomerate of unwelded ethnical elements usurps the stage of history.

America and South Africa have already their negro question; California and Australia have already their Chinese question; Russia is fast getting her Asiatic, her Mahommedan question. Even France, the most narrowly European in interest of European countries, has yet her Algeria, her Tunis, her Tonquin. Spain has Cuba and the Philippines.

Holland has Java. Germany is burdening herself with the unborn troubles of a Hinterland. And as for England, she staggers on still under the increasing load of India, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa, the West Indies, Fiji, New Guinea, North Borneo–all of them rife with endless race-questions, all pregnant with difficulties.

Who can be surprised that amid this seething turmoil of colours, instincts, creeds, and languages, art should have fastened upon the race-problems as her great theme for the moment? And she has fastened upon them everywhere. France herself has not been able to avoid the contagion. Pierre Loti is the most typical French representative of this vagabond spirit; and the question of the peoples naturally envisages itself to his mind in true Gallic fashion in the “Mariage de Loti” and in “Madame Chrysantheme.” He sees it through a halo of vague s.e.xual sentimentalism. In England, it was Rider Haggard from the Cape who first set the mode visibly; and nothing is more noteworthy in all his work than the fact that the interest mainly centres in the picturesque juxtaposition and contrast of civilisation and savagery. Once the cue was given, what more natural than that young Rudyard Kipling, fresh home from India, br.i.m.m.i.n.g over with genius and with knowledge of two concurrent streams of life that flow on side by side yet never mingle, should take up his parable in due course, and storm us all by a.s.sault with his light field artillery? Then Robert Louis Stevenson, born a wandering Scot, with roving Scandinavian and fiery Celtic blood in his veins, must needs settle down, like a Viking that he is, in far Samoa, there to charm and thrill us by turns with the romance of Polynesia. The example was catching. Almost without knowing it, other writers have turned for subjects to similar fields. “Dr. Isaacs,” “Paul Patoff,” “By Proxy,” were upon us. Even Hall Caine himself, in some ways a most insular type of genius, was forced in “The Scapegoat” to carry us off from c.u.mberland and Man to Morocco. Sir Edwin Arnold inflicts upon us the tragedies of j.a.pan. I have been watching this tendency long myself with the interested eye of a dealer engaged in the trade, and therefore anxious to keep pace with every changing breath of popular favour: and I notice a constant increase from year to year in the number of short stories in magazines and newspapers dealing with the romance of the inferior races. I notice, also, that such stories are increasingly successful with the public. This shows that, whether the public knows it or not itself, the question of race is interesting it more and more. It is gradually growing to understand the magnitude of the change that has come over civilisation by the inclusion of Asia, Africa, and Australasia within its circle. Even the Queen is learning Hindustani.

There is a famous pa.s.sage in Green’s “Short History of the English People” which describes in part that strange outburst of national expansion under Elizabeth, when Raleigh, Drake, and Frobisher scoured the distant seas, and when at home “England became a nest of singing birds,” with Shakespeare, Spenser, Fletcher, and Marlow. “The old sober notions of thrift,” says the picturesque historian, “melted before the strange revolutions of fortune wrought by the New World. Gallants gambled away a fortune at a sitting, and sailed off to make a fresh one in the Indies.” (Read rather to-day at Kimberley, Johannesburg, Vancouver.) “Visions of galleons loaded to the brim with pearls and diamonds and ingots of silver, dreams of El Dorados where all was of gold, threw a haze of prodigality and profusion over the imagination of the meanest seaman. The wonders, too, of the New World kindled a burst of extravagant fancy in the Old. The strange medley of past and present which distinguishes its masques and feastings only reflected the medley of men’s thoughts…. A ‘wild man’ from the Indies chanted the Queen’s praises at Kenilworth, and Echo answered him. Elizabeth turned from the greetings of sibyls and giants to deliver the enchanted lady from her tyrant, ‘Sans Pitie.’ Shepherdesses welcomed her with carols of the spring, while Ceres and Bacchus poured their corn and grapes at her feet.” Oh, gilded youth of the Gaiety, _mutato nomine de te Fabula narratur_. Yours, yours is this glory!

For our own age, too, is a second Elizabethan. It blossoms out daily into such flowers of fancy as never bloomed before, save then, on British soil. When men tell you nowadays we have “no great writers left,” believe not the silly parrot cry. Nay, rather, laugh it down for them. We move in the midst of one of the mightiest epochs earth has ever seen, an epoch which will live in history hereafter side by side with the Athens of Pericles, the Rome of Augustus, the Florence of Lorenzo, the England of Elizabeth. Don’t throw away your birthright by ignoring the fact. Live up to your privileges. Gaze around you and know. Be a conscious partaker in one of the great ages of humanity.

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