Post-Prandial Philosophy Part 4

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With the solitary and not very brilliant exception of the Embankment, there isn’t a street in London where one could take a stranger to admire the architecture. Compare that record with the new Boulevards in Antwerp, where almost every house is worth serious study: or with the Ring at Cologne (to keep close home all the time), where one can see whole rows of German Renaissance houses of extraordinary interest. What street in London can be mentioned in this respect side by side with Commonwealth Avenue or Beacon Street in Boston; with Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio; with the upper end of Fifth Avenue, New York; nay, even with the new Via Roma at Genoa? Why is it that we English can’t get on the King’s Road at Brighton anything faintly approaching that splendid sea front on the Digue at Ostend, or those coquettish white villas that line the Promenade des Anglais at Nice? The blight of London seems to lie over all Southern England.

Paris looks like the capital of a world-wide empire. London, looks like a shapeless neglected suburb, allowed to grow up by accident anyhow. And that’s just the plain truth of it. ‘Tis a fortuitous concourse of hap-hazard houses.

“But we are improving somewhat. The County Council is opening out a few new thoroughfares piecemeal.” Oh yes, in an illogical, unsystematic, English patchwork fashion, we are driving a badly-designed, unimpressive new street or two, with no expansive sense of imperial greatness, through the hopelessly congested and most squalid quarters. But that is all. No grand, systematic, reconstructive plan, no rising to the height of the occasion and the Empire! You tinker away at a Shaftesbury Avenue.

Parochial, all of it. And there you get the real secret of our futile attempts at making a town out of our squalid village. The fault lies all at the door of the old Corporation, and of the people who made and still make the old Corporation possible. For centuries, indeed, there was really no London, not even a village; there was only a scratch collection of contiguous villages. The consequence was that here, at the centre of national life, the English people grew wholly unaccustomed to the bare idea of a town, and managed everything piecemeal, on the petty scale of a country vestry. The vestryman intelligence has now overrun the land; and if the London County Council ever succeeds at last in making the congeries of villages into–I do not say a city, for that is almost past praying for, but something a.n.a.logous to a second-rate Continental town, it will only be after long lapse of time and violent struggles with the vestryman level of intellect and feeling.

London had many great disadvantages to start with. She lay in a dull and marshy bottom, with no building stone at hand, and therefore she was forecondemned by her very position to the curse of brick and stucco, when Bath, Oxford, Edinburgh, were all built out of their own quarries.

Then fire destroyed all her mediaeval architecture, leaving her only Westminster Abbey to suggest the greatness of her losses. But brick-earth and fire have been as nothing in their way by the side of the evil wrought by Gog and Magog. When five hundred trembling ghosts of naked Lord Mayors have to answer for their follies and their sins hereafter, I confidently expect the first question in the appalling indictment will be, “Why did you allow the richest nation on earth to house its metropolis in a squalid village?”

We have a Moloch in England to whom we sacrifice much. And his hateful name is Vested Interest.



A certain story is told about Mr. Ruskin, no doubt apocryphal, but at any rate characteristic. A young lady, fresh from the Abyss of Bayswater, met the sage one evening at dinner–a gushing young lady, as many such there be–who, aglow with joy, boarded the Professor at once with her private art-experiences. “Oh, Mr. Ruskin,” she cried, clasping her hands, “do you know, I hadn’t been two days in Florence before I discovered what you meant when you spoke about the supreme unapproachableness of Botticelli.” “Indeed?” Ruskin answered. “Well, that’s very remarkable; for it took me, myself, half a lifetime to discover it.”

The answer, of course, was meant to be crushing. How should _she_, a brand plucked from the burning of Bayswater, be able all at once, on the very first blush, to appreciate Botticelli? And it took the greatest critic of his age half a lifetime! Yet I venture to maintain, for all that, that the young lady was right, and that the critic was wrong–if such a thing be conceivable. I know, of course, that when we speak of Ruskin we must walk delicately, like Agag. But still, I repeat it, the young lady was right; and it was largely the unconscious, pervasive action of Mr. Ruskin’s own personality that enabled her to be so.

It’s all the Zeitgeist: that’s where it is. The slow irresistible Zeitgeist. Fifty years ago, men’s taste had been so warped and distorted by current art and current criticism that they _couldn’t_ see Botticelli, however hard they tried at it. He was a sealed book to our fathers. In those days it required a brave, a vigorous, and an original thinker to discover any merit in any painter before Raffael, except perhaps, as Goldsmith wisely remarked, Perugino. The man who went then to the Uffizi or the Pitti, after admiring as in duty bound his High Renaissance masters, found himself suddenly confronted with the Judith or the Calumny, and straightway wondered what manner of strange wild beasts these were that some insane early Tuscan had once painted to amuse himself in a lucid interval. They were not in the least like the Correggios and the Guidos, the Lawrences and the Opies, that the men of that time had formed their taste upon, and accepted as their sole artistic standards. To people brought up upon pure David and Thorvaldsen, the Primavera at the Belle Arti must naturally have seemed like a wild freak of madness. The Zeitgeist then went all in the direction of cold lifeless correctness; the idea that the painter’s soul counted for something in art was an undreamt of heresy.

On your way back from Paris some day, stop a night at Amiens and take the Cathedral seriously. Half the stately interior of that glorious thirteenth century pile is encrusted and overlaid by hideous gewgaw monstrosities of the flashiest Bernini and _baroque_ period. There they sprawl their obtrusive legs and wave their flaunting theatrical wings to the utter destruction of all repose and consistency in one of the n.o.blest and most perfect buildings of Europe. Nowadays, any child, any workman can see at a glance how ugly and how disfiguring those floppy creatures are; it is impossible to look at them without saying to oneself: “Why don’t they clear away all this high-faluting rubbish, and let us see the real columns and arches and piers as their makers designed them?” Yet who was it that put them there, those unspeakable angels in muslin drapery, those fly-away nymphs and graces and seraphim?

Why, the best and most skilled artists of their day in Europe. And whence comes it that the merest child can now see instinctively how out of place they are, how disfiguring, how incongruous? Why, because the Gothic revival has taught us all by degrees to appreciate the beauty and delicacy of a style which to our eighteenth century ancestors was mere barbaric mediaevalism; has taught us to admire its exquisite purity, and to dislike the obstrusive introduction into its midst of incongruous and meretricious Bernini-like flimsiness.

The Zeitgeist has changed, and we have changed with it.

It is just the same with our friend Botticelli. Scarce a dozen years ago, it was almost an affectation to pretend you admired him. It is no affectation now. Hundreds of a.s.sorted young women from the Abyss of Bayswater may rise any morning here in sacred Florence and stand genuinely enchanted before the Adoration of the Kings, or the Venus who floats on her floating sh.e.l.l in a Botticellian ocean. And why? Because Leighton, Holman Hunt, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Madox Brown, Strudwick, have led them slowly up to it by golden steps innumerable. Thirty years ago the art of the early Tuscan painters was something to us Northerners exotic, strange, unconnected, archaeological. Gradually, it has been brought nearer and nearer to us on the walls of the Grosvenor and the New Gallery, till now he that runs may read; the ingenuous maiden, fished from the Abyss of Bayswater, can drink in at a glance what it took a Ruskin many years of his life and much slow development to attain to piecemeal.

That is just what all great men are for–to make the world accept as a truism in the generation after them what it rejected as a paradox in the generation before them.

Not, of course, that there isn’t a little of affectation, and still more of fashion, to the very end in all of it. An immense number of people, incapable of genuinely admiring anything for its own sake at all, are anxious only to be told what they “ought to admire, don’t you know,” and will straightway proceed as conscientiously as they can to get up an admiration for it. A friend of mine told me a beautiful example. Two aspiring young women, of the limp-limbed, short-haired, aesthetic species, were standing rapt before the circular Madonna at the Uffizi.

They had gazed at it long and lovingly, seeing it bore on its frame the magic name of Botticelli. Of a sudden one of the pair happened to look a little nearer at the accusing label. “Why, this is not Sandro,” she cried, with a revulsion of disgust; “this is only Aless.” And straightway they went off from the spot in high dudgeon at having been misled as they supposed into examining the work of “another person of the same name.”

Need I point the moral of my apologue, in this age of enlightenment, by explaining, for the benefit of the junior members, that the gentleman’s full name was really Alessandro, and that both abbreviations are impartially intended to cover his one and indivisible personality? The first half is official, like Alex.; the second affectionate and familiar, like Sandy.

Still, even after making due allowance for such humbugs as these, a vast residuum remains of people who, if born sixty years ago, could never by any possibility have been made to see there was anything admirable in Lippi, Botticelli, Giotto; but who, having been born thirty years ago, see it without an effort. Hundreds who read these lines must themselves remember the unmistakable thrill of genuine pleasure with which they first gazed upon the Fra Angelicos at San Marco, the Memlings at Bruges, the Giottos in the Madonna dell’ Arena at Padua. To many of us, those are real epochs in our inner life. To the men of fifty years ago, the bare avowal itself would have seemed little short of affected silliness.

Is the change all due to the teaching of the teachers and the preaching of the preachers? I think not entirely. For, after all, the teachers and the preachers are but a little ahead of the age they live in. They see things earlier; they help to lead us up to them; but they do not wholly produce the revolutions they inaugurate. Humanity as a whole develops consistently along certain pre-established and predestined lines. Sooner or later, a certain point must inevitably be reached; but some of us reach it sooner, and most of us later. That’s all the difference. Every great change is mainly due to the fact that we have all already attained a certain point in development. A step in advance becomes inevitable after that, and one after another we are sure to take it. In one word, what it needed a man of genius to see dimly thirty years ago, it needs a singular fool not to see clearly nowadays.



Men don’t marry nowadays. So everybody tells us. And I suppose we may therefore conclude, by a simple act of inference, that women in turn don’t marry either. It takes two, of course, to make a quarrel–or a marriage.

Why is this? “Young people nowadays want to begin where their fathers left off.” “Men are made so comfortable at present in their clubs.”

“College-bred girls have no taste for housekeeping.” “Rents are so high and manners so luxurious.” Good heavens, what silly trash, what puerile nonsense! Are we all little boys and girls, I ask you, that we are to put one another off with such transparent humbug? Here we have to deal with a primitive instinct–the profoundest and deepest-seated instinct of humanity, save only the instincts of food and drink and of self-preservation. Man, like all other animals, has two main functions: to feed his own organism, and to reproduce his species. Ancestral habit leads him, when mature, to choose himself a mate–because he loves her.

It drives him, it urges him, it goads him irresistibly. If this profound impulse is really lacking to-day in any large part of our race, there must be some correspondingly profound and adequate reason for it. Don’t let us deceive ourselves with shallow plat.i.tudes which may do for drawing-rooms. This is philosophy, even though post-prandial. Let us try to take a philosophic view of the question at issue, from the point of vantage of a biological outlook.

Before you begin to investigate the causes of a phenomenon _quelconque_, ‘tis well to decide whether the phenomenon itself is there to investigate.

Taking society throughout–_not_ in the sense of those “forty families”

to which the term is restricted by Lady Charles Beresford–I doubt whether marriage is much out of fashion. Statistics show a certain decrease, it is true, but not an alarming one. Among the labouring, I imagine men, and also women, still wed pretty frequently.

When people say, “Young men won’t marry nowadays,” they mean young men in a particular stratum of society, roughly bounded by a silk hat on Sundays. Now, when you and I were young (I take it for granted that you and I are approaching the fifties) young men did marry; even within this restricted area, ‘twas their wholesome way in life to form an attachment early with some nice girl in their own set, and to start at least with the idea of marrying her. Toward that goal they worked; for that end they endured and sacrificed many things. True, even then, the long engagement was the rule; but the long engagement itself meant some persistent impulse, some strong impetus marriage-wards. The desire of the man to make this woman his own, the longing to make this woman happy–normal and healthy endowments of our race–had still much driving-power. Nowadays, I seriously think I observe in most young men of the middle cla.s.s around me a distinct and disastrous weakening of the impulse. They don’t fall in love as frankly, as honestly, as irretrievably as they used to do. They shilly-shally, they pick and choose, they discuss, they criticise. They say themselves these futile foolish things about the club, and the flat, and the cost of living.

They believe in Malthus. Fancy a young man who believes in Malthus! They seem in no hurry at all to get married. But thirty or forty years ago, young men used to rush by blind instinct into the toils of matrimony–because they couldn’t help themselves. Such Laodicean luke-warmness betokens in the cla.s.s which exhibits it a weakening of impulse. That weakening of impulse is really the thing we have to account for.

Young men of a certain type don’t marry, because–they are less of young men than formerly.

Wild animals in confinement seldom propagate their kind. Only a few caged birds will continue their species. Whatever upsets the balance of the organism, in an individual or a race tends first of all to affect the rate of reproduction. Civilise the red man, and he begins to decrease at once in numbers. Turn the Sandwich Islands into a trading community, and the native Hawaiian refuses forthwith to give hostages to fortune. Tahiti is dwindling. From the moment the Tasmanians were taken to Norfolk Island, not a single Tasmanian baby was born. The Jesuits made a model community of Paraguay; but they altered the habits of the Paraguayans so fast that the reverend fathers, who were, of course, themselves celibates, were compelled to take strenuous and even grotesque measures to prevent the complete and immediate extinction of their converts. Other cases in abundance I might quote an I would; but I limit myself to these. They suffice to exhibit the general principle involved; any grave upset in the conditions of life affects first and at once the fertility of a species.

“But colonists often increase with rapidity.” Ay, marry, do they, where the conditions of life are easy. At the present day most colonists go to fairly civilised regions; they are transported to their new home by steamboat and railway; they find for the most part more abundant provender and more wholesome surroundings than in their native country.

There is no real upset. Better food and easier life, as Herbert Spencer has shown, result (other things equal) in increased fertility. His chapters on this subject in the “Principles of Biology” should be read by everybody who pretends to talk on questions of population. But in new and difficult colonies the increase is slight. Whatever compels greater wear and tear of the nervous system proves inimical to the reproductive function. The strain and stress of co-ordination with novel circ.u.mstances and novel relations affect most injuriously the organic balance. The African negro has long been accustomed to agricultural toil and to certain simple arts in his own country. Transported to the West Indies and the United States, he found life no harder than of old, if not, indeed, easier. He had abundant food, protection, security, a kind of labour for which he was well adapted. Instead of dying out, therefore, he was fruitful, and multiplied, and replenished the earth amazingly. But the Red Indian, caught blatant in the hunting stage, refused to be tamed, and could not swallow civilisation. He pined and dwined and decreased in his “reservations.” The change was too great, too abrupt, too brusque for him. The papoose before long became an extinct animal.

Is not the same thing true of the middle cla.s.s of England? Civilisation and its works have come too quickly upon us. The strain and stress of correlating and co-ordinating the world we live in are getting too much for us. Railways, telegraphs, the penny post, the special edition, have played havoc at last with our nervous systems. We are always on the stretch, rushing and tearing perpetually. We bolt our breakfasts; we catch the train or ‘bus by the skin of our teeth, to rattle us into the City; we run down to Scotland or over to Paris on business; we lunch in London and dine in Glasgow, Belfast, or Calcutta. (Excuse imagination.) The tape clicks perpetually in our ears the last quotation in Eries; the telephone rings us up at inconvenient moments. Something is always happening somewhere to disturb our equanimity; we tear open the _Times_ with feverish haste, to learn that Kimberleys or Jabez Balfour have fallen, that Matabeleland has been painted red, that shares have gone up, or gone down, or evaporated. Life is one turmoil of excitement and bustle. Financially, ‘tis a series of dissolving views; personally ‘tis a rush; socially, ‘tis a mosaic of deftly-fitted engagements. Drop out one piece, and you can never replace it. You are full next week from Monday to–business all day, what calls itself pleasure (save the mark!) all evening. Poor old Leisure is dead. We hurry and scurry and flurry eternally. One whirl of work from morning till night: then dress and dine: one whirl of excitement from night till morning. A snap of troubled sleep, and again _da capo_. Not an hour, not a minute, we can call our own. A wire from a patient ill abed in Warwickshire! A wire from a client hard hit in Hansards! Endless editors asking for more copy! more copy! Alter to suit your own particular trade, and ‘tis the life of all of us.

The first generation after Stephenson and the Rocket pulled through with it somehow. They inherited the sound const.i.tutions of the men who sat on rustic seats in the gardens of the twenties. The second generation–that’s you and me–felt the strain of it more severely: new machines had come in to make life still more complicated: sixpenny telegrams, Bell and Edison, submarine cables, evening papers, perturbations pouring in from all sides incessantly; the suburbs growing, the hubbub increasing, Metropolitan railways, trams, bicycles, innumerable: but natheless we still endured, and presented the world all the same with a third generation. That third generation–ah me! there comes the pity of it! One fancies the impulse to marry and rear a family has wholly died out of it. It seems to have died out most in the cla.s.s where the strain and stress are greatest. I don’t think young men of that cla.s.s to-day have the same feelings towards women of their sort as formerly. n.o.body, I trust, will mistake me for a reactionary: in most ways, the modern young man is a vast improvement on you and me at twenty-five. But I believe there is really among young men in towns less chivalry, less devotion, less romance than there used to be. That, I take it, is the true reason why young men don’t marry. With certain and in certain places a primitive instinct of our race has weakened. They say this weakening is accompanied in towns by an increase in sundry hateful and degrading vices. I don’t know if that is so; but at least one would expect it. Any enfeeblement of the normal and natural instinct of virility would show itself first in morbid aberrations. On that I say nothing. I only say this–that I think the present crisis in the English marriage market is due, not to clubs or the comfort of bachelor quarters, but to the c.u.mulative effect of nervous over-excitement.



It is admitted on all hands by this time, I suppose, that the best way of learning is by eye, not by ear. Therefore the authorities that prescribe for us our education among all have decided that we shall learn by ear, not by eye. Which is just what one might expect from a vested interest.

Of course this superiority of sight over hearing is pre-eminently true of natural science–that is to say, of nine-tenths among the subjects worth learning by humanity. The only real way to learn geology, for example, is not to mug it up in a printed text-book, but to go into the field with a geologist’s hammer. The only real way to learn zoology and botany is not by reading a volume of natural history, but by collecting, dissecting, observing, preserving, and comparing specimens. Therefore, of course, natural science has never been a favourite study in the eyes of school-masters, who prefer those subjects which can be taught in a room to a row of boys on a bench, and who care a great deal less than nothing for any subject which isn’t “good to examine in.” Educational value and importance in after life have been sacrificed to the teacher’s ease and convenience, or to the readiness with which the pupil’s progress can be tested on paper. Not what is best to learn, but what is least trouble to teach in great squads to boys, forms the staple of our modern English education. They call it “education,” I observe in the papers, and I suppose we must fall in with that whim of the profession.

But even the subjects which belong by rights to the ear can nevertheless be taught by the eye more readily. Everybody knows how much easier it is to get up the history and geography of a country when you are actually in it than when you are merely reading about it. It lives and moves before you. The places, the persons, the monuments, the events, all become real to you. Each ill.u.s.trates each, and each tends to impress the other on the memory. Sight burns them into the brain without conscious effort. You can learn more of Egypt and of Egyptian history, culture, hieroglyphics, and language in a few short weeks at Luxor or Sakkarah than in a year at the Louvre and the British Museum. The Tombs of the Kings are worth many papyri. The mere sight of the temples and obelisks and monuments and inscriptions, in the places where their makers originally erected them, gives a sense of reality and interest to them all that no amount of study under alien conditions can possibly equal.

We have all of us felt that the only place to observe Flemish art to the greatest advantage is at Ghent and Bruges and Brussels and Antwerp; just as the only place to learn Florentine art as it really was is at the Uffizi and the Bargello.

These things being so, the authorities who have charge of our public education, primary, secondary, and tertiary, have decided in their wisdom–to do and compel the exact contrary. Object-lessons and the visible being admittedly preferable to rote-lessons and the audible, they have prescribed that our education, so called, shall be mainly an education not in things and properties, but in books and reading. They have settled that it shall deal almost entirely and exclusively with language and with languages; that words, not objects, shall be the facts it impresses on the minds of the pupils. In our primary schools they have insisted upon nothing but reading and writing, with just a smattering of arithmetic by way of science. In our secondary schools they have insisted upon nothing but Greek and Latin, with about an equal leaven of algebra and geometry. This mediaeval fare (I am delighted that I can thus agree for once with Professor Ray Lankester) they have thrust down the throats of all the world indiscriminately; so much so that nowadays people seem hardly able at last to conceive of any other than a linguistic education as possible. You will hear many good folk who talk with contempt of Greek and Latin; but when you come to inquire what new mental pabulum they would subst.i.tute for those quaint and grotesque survivals of the Dark Ages, you find what they want instead is–modern languages. The idea that language of any sort forms no necessary element in a liberal education has never even occurred to them. They take it for granted that when you leave off feeding boys on straw and oats you must supply them instead with hay and sawdust.

Not that I rage against Greek and Latin as such. It is well we should have many specialists among us who understand them, just as it is well we should have specialists in Anglo-Saxon and Sanskrit. I merely mean that they are not the sum and substance of educational method. They are at best but two languages of considerable importance to the student of purely human evolution.

Furthermore, even these comparatively useless linguistic subjects could themselves be taught far better by sight than by hearing. A week at Rome would give your average boy a much clearer idea of the relations of the Capitol with the Palatine than all the pretty maps in Dr. William Smith’s Smaller Cla.s.sical Dictionary. It would give him also a sense of the reality of the Latin language and the Latin literature, which he could never pick up out of a dog-eared Livy or a thumb-marked aeneid. You have only to look across from the top of the Janiculum, towards the white houses of Frascati, to learn a vast deal more about the Alban hills and the site of Tusculum than ever you could mug up from all the geography books in the British Museum. The way to learn every subject on earth, even book-lore included, is not out of books alone, but by actual observation.

And yet it is impossible for any one among us to do otherwise than acquiesce in this vicious circle. Why? Just because no man can dissociate himself outright from the social organism of which he forms a component member. He can no more do so than the eye can dissociate itself from the heart and lungs, or than the legs can shake themselves free from the head and stomach. We have all to learn, and to let our boys learn, what authority decides for us. We can’t give them a better education than the average, even if we know what it is and desire to impart it, because the better education, though abstractly more valuable, is now and here the inlet to nothing. Every door is barred with examinations, and opens but to the golden key of the crammer. Not what is of most real use and importance in life, but what “pays best” in examination, is the test of desirability. We are the victims of a system; and our only hope of redress is not by sporadic individual action but by concerted rebellion. We must cry out against the abuse till at last we are heard by dint of our much speaking. In a world so complex and so highly organised as ours, the individual can only do anything in the long run by influencing the ma.s.s–by securing the co-operation of many among his fellows.

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