Ernest Belfort Bax

Reminiscences and Reflexions of a mid and late Victorian

Chapter VII
Literary Work

In writing these reminiscences, I have, as already stated in the preface, made it a rule to damp down the personal note as far as possible, and to avoid the example of Lord Herbert of Cherbury of giving prominence to my own valiant deeds. But, seeing they are after all personal reminiscences, it would seem out of place, and even pedantic, to suppress altogether all account of the individual reminiscencer’s achievements, such as they are and what there are of them. In the present chapter, therefore, I am going frankly to talk about myself, so those not interested may pass it over. But what I have to chronicle I should premise are no glorious deeds of valour, but resolve themselves simply into a little modest literary work.

My first excursions into the regions of print consisted in a few articles in obscure monthlies devoted to natural history, a subject on which at the time, being then in my early teens, I was very keen. It was some few years before I produced anything more. My next piece of literary output, so far as I can recollect, was in 1876, and was a result of my studies on the French Revolution, namely a little book in vindication of Jean Paul Marat. I returned to this subject, I should say, over twenty years later at the suggestion of my friend Mr. Grant Richards, who published a life of Marat by me in the nineties of the last century. About the time of my first sketch of Marat’s life an article from my pen on the subject appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine. Barring articles in periodicals and newspapers, as also the episode of my newspaper correspondentship in Berlin alluded to in an earlier chapter, my next literary effort was a translation of Kant’s Prolegomena to all Future Metaphysic and his Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, with a life of Kant and an introduction to the Critical philosophy prefixed, the latter occupying about a third of the whole volume, which was published in Bohn’s Philosophical Library. Thus was followed a year or two later by my Handbook of the History of Philosophy, also in the same series, a book which was very well received and had a considerable success, as works on philosophy go, with the British public. Later on I published with the same firm (Messrs. Bell and Sons) a translation of a selection from Schopenhauer’s Parerga and Paralipomena under the title of Schopenhauer’s Essays, preceded by a life of Schopenhauer and a critical exposition of his philosophy.

It was about the middle eighties that I began the publication of a sequence of popular works on Socialism for Messrs. Sonnenschein & Co.’s Social Science Series. The first of them was The Religion of Socialism, consisting of essays dealing with various aspects of Socialism. These, of course, are now a generation old, and, addressed as they were to a public of over thirty years ago, their point of view and expression naturally may strike the reader of the present day as not being quite up to date. As to this, while maintaining in full the essential principles put forward in these earlier essays, I am prepared, of course, to admit that there are some things which from the present-day standpoint may appear over-emphasized, while there are others either omitted or from the same standpoint insufficiently elaborated. I already acknowledge this in my preface to the fifth edition (1901). And what I said then applies, of course, still more to-day. But the book has passed through so many editions that it may well be left as it is – always, of course, on the assumption that in essentials it still expresses the views of the author. The success of the Religion of Socialism led to the production of other books of a similar character and scope by myself and others. In fact, it practically gave a send-off to the Social Science Series. [1] My own next contribution was the Ethics of Socialism, the success of which was almost, if not quite, equal to that of the Religion of Socialism, notwithstanding the fact that it was not, as in the former case, exclusively concerned with Socialism, containing three rather important essays on other subjects. Following this appeared a third volume of similar character entitled Outlooks from the New Standpoint. This book had a fairly good sale, although, curiously enough, not nearly equal to that of the two former, in spite of the fact that it contained essays dealing with subjects more “topical” than either of them. During the anniversary years of the French Revolution I contributed my Story of the French Revolution to the same series. A little later I wrote for the Twentieth Century Press a short history of the Commune of Paris of 1871. This little book, though scarcely more than a brochure, is, I believe, the only history of the Commune within the same compass in the English language. It was based largely on Lissagaray’s exhaustive work on the subject. It is satisfactory to know that it circulated widely amongst English Socialists. The same may be said of a pamphlet entitled A New Catechism of Socialism, in which my late friend Harry Quelch and myself collaborated. The allusion in the title was to an old pamphlet published at the beginning of the English movement by J.L. Joynes called Socialist Catechism, now out of print. Our own brochure, consisting of some forty-four pages, was published by the Twentieth Century Press at twopence, and has had a circulation of many thousands.

The nineties saw the successive publication of my three volumes on the social side of the Reformation in Germany, bearing the respective titles of German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages, The Peasants’ War, and The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptists. These three volumes contain an exhaustive history of certain sides of the Reformation period in Central Europe, such as is not to be found otherwise, I may venture to say, in the whole range of English historical literature. But although well reviewed, they never attained a second edition. Purely historical literature, like purely philosophical literature, has apparently no great public among the reading population of the British Islands, except where it connects itself with some popular interest of the day or some problem which happens to have come temporarily into prominence.

Shortly before the appearance of the first of the volumes last mentioned I published, also with Messrs, Sonnenschein, a small philosophical work entitled The Problem of Reality, containing in a brief sketch suggestions for a philosophical reconstruction. This little book, while its theses were based on philosophic Idealism generally, was opposed to the current neo-Hegelian position, which was at that time still paramount in English philosophy. About the same time I published another small volume, entitled Outspoken Essays, dealing with historical and social subjects. During these early years of the nineties I also collaborated with the late William Morris in the work we entitled Socialism, its Growth and Outcome, which was also published (as a double volume) in Sonnenschein’s Social Science Series. It claims to be a history of the development of the Socialistic idea, in its practical aspects, beginning with primitive Communism, tracing the decay of the communistic group system and the rise of Individualism, economical and otherwise, and the various fluctuations throughout history in respect to these two principles, leading up to the modern Socialist movement, as embodying consciously Socialism as the ideal of the future. The book, although it had a fair sale, has not passed without criticism from various sides. That it has its defects and weak points may be true, but I still contend that, taken as a whole, it is as adequate a statement of a big subject as could be compressed into the same compass.

About this time I was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple, which I had joined some three years before. For a year or two after this I had some notion of actively following the legal profession, and took steps in that direction, but subsequently abandoned the idea. My time was thus left free for other studies and literary work. Continuing my record with regard to the latter, the new life of Marat already referred to was written at the end of the nineties, and reached a second edition two or three years after its publication. Early in the new century a volume of mixed contents was published by Grant Richard, under the title Essays in Socialism Old and New. It comprised most of the pieces contained in the Outspoken Essays, which had appeared some ten years earlier and had gone out of print, and a number of new pieces. The above was followed by what I personally regard as my most important literary production, to wit, The Roots of Reality. This book was based upon the conclusions put forward tentatively some years previously in the brief sketch before alluded to, The Problem of Reality. The positions these laid down are in the later and much larger volume developed, corrected, and added to, and other problems dealt with. It is now out of print and awaiting a second and enlarged edition on the conclusion of the present war; but as it stands, it labours under the disadvantage that its criticism of the Hegelian, or, as I have termed it, the “pallogistic” position in philosophy, is disproportionately emphasized in view of the fact of the changes that have taken place during the last ten years in the general outlook of speculative thought in this country. “Pragmatism,” Bergson, and other influences quite foreign and even opposed to the Hegelian Pallogism or Intellectualism (as it is some times called), have since become fashionable, and from the point of view of The Roots of Reality call for a special criticism of their own, There are also other suggestions I have received as regards presentment and illustration, to the intent to render the positions advanced more readily understandable of the lay reader, and these also demand serious consideration in the revised edition, which the writer hopes in due time will see the light.

After The Roots of Reality had appeared, I bethought me of a promise to my old friend William Morris, made not long before his death, to write a history of that, even to most students, little-known event at the close of the French Revolution, Gracchus Babeuf’s “Conspiracy of the Equals.” This undertaking I now endeavoured to fulfil to the best of my ability, and the result was the volume entitled The Last Episode of the French Revolution (Grant Richard), which appeared in 1911. The book, though well enough reviewed, had the sale one expects from purely historical monographs having little or no bearing on current events or practical interest for the present time. It remains, however, as the only English study on the subject obtainable, even Bronterre O’Brien’s translation of the contemporary Buonarotti’s work having been out of print for more than half a century.

This was followed in 1912 by another volume of essays, entitled Essays on Men, Mind, and Morals, comprising some previously published and some unpublished pieces, among the former the article that originally appeared in the International Journal of Ethics on the Socialist view of the fundamental principles of morality, and my reply in the Fortnightly Review to Dr. Beattie Crozier’s attack on Socialism. In November 1913 appeared The Fraud of Feminism, just after Sir Almroth Wright’s Unexpurgated Case against Woman Suffrage. In this little book of less than two hundred pages I claim to have disposed of the arguments (save the mark!), so constantly heard and so seldom contradicted or refuted, of the advocates of Feminism. I have clearly drawn the distinction between Political Feminism (as I have termed it) and Sentimental Feminism. The Political Feminist claims for women equal political and social rights with men. The Sentimental Feminist, under the sham pretence of chivalry, claims impunity for women from the unpleasant consequences of their own conduct. Between the two, and they are usually combined in the same person, we arrive at the delightful conclusion that women have a right to claim an equal position with men wherever it suits their book, i.e. in all honourable, agreeable, and lucrative positions, and at the same time to demand special treatment from that accorded to men whenever “equality” would spell unpleasant consequences for themselves – a charming doctrine truly for the female sex, in which the “equality” appears with its picturesque chivalry “all on one side.”

My efforts in this book, as in previous essays, to expose the claptrap and lies of the advocates of Feminism have naturally not been to the taste of the Suffragette sisterhood, who have lost no opportunity of venting their petty spite in feeble efforts to say nasty things. I give just one instance of this. In the Spring of 1915 appeared a volume called forth by the war, entitled German Culture, Past and Present. [2] It consisted largely of excerpts from my previous volumes on the social side of the Reformation in Germany, with two concluding chapters on Modern Germany. The book was very favourably received by the Press generally, but there was one dissentient voice in a certain London morning daily of strong Feminist tendencies, wherein appeared a notice in which every one detected the hand of the Suffragette. The lady in question, who, of course, wrote under the veil of anonymity, headed her article Mr. Bax in extremis! (she probably meant in excelsis!). After a few words of general attack on the ground that all the contents were not new, she proceeded to single out and quote from the last chapter a couple of plain-sailing English sentences, upon which she pronounced her ipse dixit that the style was “bad” and the thought “jejune.” Now, what does the reader think these two “bad” and “jejune” sentences purported to say? Simply that in the humble judgment of the author the influence of the writings of Nietzsche on Modern Germany was not as powerful as some writers on the war had represented. Of course, I may have been wrong in my view as to this, but I submit that to describe such an opinion, whether right or wrong, precisely as “jejune” indicates a singular ignorance of the correct use of the English language as possible with advanced womanhood. As a matter of fact, these last two chapters of the book in question were written somewhat hurriedly, and in consequence one or two real if trivial errors had crept into them, which, unimportant as they were in themselves, were such as in the hands of a skilful critic bent on being “nasty” might (especially in a short notice) have been effectively exploited against me. These, however, my female critic had evidently neither the brains nor the knowledge to take advantage of. Accordingly, the foolish young woman who aimed at smartness achieved silliness.

This incident, which might hardly seem worthy of mention in itself, is nevertheless otherwise significant inasmuch as it betrays a type of mental attitude prevalent in the younger present generation, and especially in the youthful “emancipated” female. It is the morbid craving after literary fireworks – the dread of the commonplace become a disease. Every sentence that does not wrap up an epigram, every expression of opinion that does not wear the air of a paradox, is voted dull and vapid. These fatuous would-be up-to-date young prigs seem, moreover, oblivious of the everyday fact that it is often necessary in controversy and otherwise to remind an opponent, or even the casual reader, of what ought to be obvious. There are plenty of people, for that matter, with whom it is necessary on occasion to call their attention to the fact that two and two make four. But, even apart from this, the demand of priggish up-to-datism that every paragraph, if it is to be worth the trouble of reading, must enshrine an uninterrupted series of epigrams or paradoxes, is silly and insufferable. In fact, the overdoing of the epigrammatic and paradoxical may very easily run to seed in a claptrap and a banality of its own. As pointed out in an earlier chapter, it may fairly be doubted whether Shaw, able man though he is, does not sometimes overshoot the mark in this respect. Talking of Shaw reminds me, by the way, of an incident bearing on the above. On my remarking to Shaw one day that our mutual friend J.L. Joynes had observed to me that he should not particularly care to have him for a companion in a long tour, Shaw replied, “Well, I can’t reciprocate the sentiment, for I think Joynes would suit me very well as a travelling companion; but I know what he meant: I dare say I should be always trying to say smart things, and this after a time might tend to become boresome.” So it is. Excessive wit may weary, just as excessive sweetness may satiate. If there is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous, there are likewise not many steps from the brilliant to the banal. And the steps are counted in the overloading of writing or discourse with points and effects – and this however good these may be in themselves.

As regards my literary activity, I have always been at the disadvantage of not having the faculty possessed by many of expanding a subject I am writing upon indefinitely. I have the scheme of what I conceive to be essential in the exposition of my subject, and I write up to it. But I have a difficulty in filling out beyond this to meet the exigencies of printers and publishers. The above is an undoubted drawback, since the dilution of one’s subject with words and style is what in many cases the public wants. On the other hand, the facility in reeling out verbal material has its disadvantages even in historical writing, although not nearly so much as in philosophical. Even where the material is not purely verbal, but to a large extent real, there is always a danger of overweighting, so that the reader is apt to get into the position of not being able to see the wood for the trees. The salient points which are essential are apt to get confused in a mass of relatively, and sometimes more than relatively, unimportant detail. The observance of proportion in the subject matter of serious work, though obviously an essential in all such writing, is as often as not failed of attainment even with men of ability. In historical writing it is exceedingly difficult to steer between the Scylla of bareness and sketchiness and the Charybdis of overweighting with incidental material, which leaves confusion as to the general import of events in the mind of the reader. This applies, of course, more to popular historical writing than to works of scholarship designed for students, where a certain amount of overweighting is scarcely avoidable. Of the latter class of work Gibbon is supposed to be the model in this respect. But it may fairly be doubted whether Gibbon’s handling of his material in the Decline and Fall, as regards proportion, is not excelled by Hodgson in his Invaders of Italy.

Where, however, the reeling out of an immense mass of verbal product is most dangerous to effectiveness is in highly abstract subjects, especially philosophy. Here diffuseness is absolutely fatal to the leaving of any strong impression on the mind of the reader. This is especially noticeable in certain American writers, notably Professor Baldwin, whose three volumes Thought and Things are devoted to material which on a liberal computation might easily be got into one. Other American writers of philosophical treatises are guilty of the same indiscretion, to wit, of drowning the essentials of their thought in portentous volumes of closely printed pages which look imposing but leave little impression on the reader. In philosophy, more than in anything else, it is desirable to avoid diffuseness and overexpansion, not only by mere verbiage, but by the introduction of a mass of detail and discussion of fifth-rate problems on the fringe of the main subject. One sometimes finds this over, elaboration in works of real genius and even of epoch making character. For example, the Kapital of Marx is not wholly free therefrom. It is, indeed, more particularly noticeable in the posthumous second and third volume, although, especially as regards the third volume, since it was left by its author in a condition of notes and jottings merely, it would be manifestly unfair to saddle these shortcomings altogether on Marx himself.

Returning to my own literary work, I may mention that it has been my fortune to have what we are told is the sincerest form of flattery, namely, imitation, more than once practised upon me. The authors who have done this have at the same time been careful not to acknowledge the source of their indebtedness. Thus a year or so after the publication of my little sketch The Problem of Reality appeared a work by an eminent British statesman of philosophic pretensions, which contained a criticism of the Hegelian Pallogism, especially with reference to its modern expressions in the works of Thomas Hill Green and others, which was practically identical with my own. Conclusions arrived at independently, the reader will say! Possibly, but the similarity of the argument, and even of its expression, seemed singularly close, and for me the more significant in view of the fact that I had some grounds for believing the distinguished philosophic statesman in question might not have been altogether without knowledge of my own humble and insignificant effort.

Again, in the works of a well-known popular essayist I could point to paragraphs which are almost identical reproductions of passages of my own. Another well-known writer on social and economic subjects, in a work of his published a year or two ago, devotes a long final chapter to the elaboration, without acknowledgment, of my speculation as to the evolution of a social consciousness presented in The Roots of Reality (pp.126-36). I am not making a personal grievance out of these things, but I may say that as a general principle I cannot approve of the literary morality which does not hesitate to “lift” ideas, and in some cases even turns of expression, from an isolated thinker, a thing no one would dare to do in the case of a man holding an academic chair or otherwise very much in the public view. In the first case the “lifting” may pass unobserved; in the second, those who practised it would be likely to be “dropped upon” at once.

An amusing, because so flagrant, a case of the false attribution of an idea in the interest apparently of the academic “guild” in general is the cool reference by a distinguished American professor of philosophy of the term “alogical,” in the sense in which I have used it, to Professor Bergson. Professor Bergson himself, who, in spite of his eminence in the world of modern philosophic thought, is personally the most modest of men, told me in conversation that, while approving of my use of the word, he had not seen it, certainly in the sense used by me, before he read The Roots of Reality.

All I have to say upon this question of property in ideas is that if the provenance of ideas or literary expression is to be acknowledged at all, it should be acknowledged equally all round without distinction of persons. To acknowledge, perhaps with effusiveness, indebtedness for a thought when its author holds a professorship or is prominently before the public eye in other ways, and to reproduce a thought without a word of acknowledgment of its source where its author holds no distinguished post or is generally less in the public view, I think it will be admitted by most impartial persons savours of a certain degree of meanness. Yet there seems to be a notion abroad that the works of such a one may be used as an open quarry and their contained ideas fully appropriated, the original author being conveniently ignored.

Setting aside the purely philosophical issues discussed in The Roots of Reality, which are too technical to be entered into at length in a book of this nature, some readers might be inclined to ask what I consider as my special contribution to modern thought on the subjects on which I have written. It is difficult to answer this question satisfactorily. But among the few small services my work may have helped is the calling attention to the distinction between the morality of early society, with its basis of communal or group feeling and thinking, and the introspective morality, sometimes called the Ethics of Inwardness, based on the individual and his relation as a spiritual being, considered more or less per se, to a deity who is the supreme power of the Universe. In the first case the basis of morality and religion is custom and traditionally prescribed action or ritual, the question of individual motive hardly entering into it; the second, the inner motives and feelings of the individual occupy the foremost place. I think I may claim, without pretending to be the actual protagonist of this idea, to which modern anthropology has been leading up for many years, to have been the first popularly to emphasize the distinction in connexion with the light it throws upon the doctrine and aspirations of the socialism of to-day. The distinction between the communal thought or feeling by which the man was absolutely merged in the group-clan, tribe, or people – before individuality or logical thought, in our sense, had arisen; and that of civilization, which meant, as one of its chief features, the development of the individual as such, and his freeing from the ties and order of ideas which identified him with the group under earlier conditions of society, it was always my endeavour to impress upon the thinking section of Socialists and of those interested in social problems. This point, that I have since a generation ago, in a bare and, I willingly admit, inadequate form, endeavoured to popularize among my contemporaries, has of late years, with perhaps certain modifications and on a more extended scale, been worked out from another side in a most original manner and with considerable learning by the new Cambridge school of anthropologists. The fact that classical scholarship has largely been employed to this end, and the evolution of ancient Greek society taken as typical, I hold to be no disadvantage, but rather the contrary. Useful and indeed indispensable as the comparative method of the investigation of the conditions of existing savage and barbaric communities may be, Greece nevertheless lies in the main stream of human evolution, and must therefore, with the other self-evolving civilized races of the ancient world, represent the type of social progress in a manner which the existing survivals of early society in outlying parts of the world do not. The latter may be compared to eddies and side-streams of the main course of human development, which do not necessarily represent in their present conditions the exact counterpart of any past phase in the evolution of the historic races, however much they may afford us illustrations of, and clues to, the general course of that evolution.

There are plenty of other points which I have endeavoured to bring out in my literary work. The above I only give as a specimen of an important one. I am aware that I have the misfortune, for the rest, while able perhaps sometimes to throw out ideas worthy of consideration, in a bare and sketchy manner, to lack the equally necessary capacity of working them out in detail and thereby demonstrating their truth. I am perfectly willing to admit this as a defect; whether a defect of my qualities must depend upon the decision of others and the public generally as to whether I have any. with this observation I may fairly conclude the present, I trust not too long, chapter on my own literary doings and sufferings.



1. Now published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

2. George Allen & Unwin Ltd.


Last updated on 16.8.2004