Ernest Belfort Bax

Reminiscences and Reflexions of a mid and late Victorian

Chapter IX
The Mental Outlook of the England of To-Day and Yesterday

Writing as I now am, while the great European War is as yet unfinished, in speaking of the England of to-day I am perhaps hardly quite accurate. In due strictness I should have said the England of Midsummer 1914. But inasmuch as no new development has as yet arisen, the fact that the great wave of the war influences has for a moment submerged all other issues would hardly justify us in assuming that below this wave the ways of looking at things, at the period immediately preceding the war, do not still subsist, although for the moment obscured. That the years of the war will leave their profound mark on the British character, and especially on its attitude towards practical social and political issues, I regard as a certainty. But the change wrought by the war will probably mark its full measure some years after the conclusion of peace, and meanwhile the mental attitude, at least in theoretical matters, that obtained in the Summer of 1914 will maintain itself in essentials perhaps for a generation to come as the groundwork of the national world-view. I speak of “national world-view” as it is convenient and more germane to these reminiscences to regard these manifestations of modern thought as they express themselves in this country and as coloured by its habits and traditions, although of course, strictly speaking, there is nothing essential in modern types of thought that is purely provincial or national and not more or less common to the whole of civilized humanity, i.e. to all Europe and its colonies, including, of course, America, and not omitting Japan. But, as above said, it belongs to this work to deal more especially with the movements of thought of to-day and of the past generation as manifested in the English-speaking race, and especially in Great Britain itself. The temperament of the Anglo-Saxon race, moral and intellectual, has undoubtedly something peculiarly its own. This has become evident ever since the close of the Middle Ages, and it remained notably true till the end of the mid-Victorian period, as it is termed. Even now, notwithstanding the more cosmopolitan atmosphere of the last, and especially the current generation, it is a fact which has not lost its significance.

I have already dealt in earlier chapters with the rise and progress of the Socialist movement in Great Britain, and this, therefore, need not detain us here. What I propose to deal with in this chapter is the actual position of English popular thought – in short, of current opinion – towards certain religious, ethical, civic, and aesthetic questions as contrasted with two generations, and even one generation, ago.

First of all, let us examine the present position of the popular English mind towards certain problems usually regarded as at the basis of religious ideas. We have already seen how in the early sixties the crassest obscurantism, based on the current creed, prevailed in the moral and intellectual attitude of the whole middle class, and in fact with all but a few literary and specially intellectual circles. Things were just beginning to move then, but very slowly. Intellectual darkness and social terrorism, as described by the late Mr. Benn in his History of English Rationalism during the nineteenth Century, was but little shaken till quite the close of the sixties. The view that religion was necessary for the masses, and that anything tending to shake the belief or dull intellectual acquiescence of these same masses in the current theology was fraught with grievous danger to property and the State, and hence to be severely discountenanced, was commonly to be heard into the beginning of the seventies. That generation has now, however, passed away. The average man in society no longer thinks it necessary even to pretend to any belief in the dogmas of the Christian Churches, but it was long before the fundamental articles of theological belief ceased to be regarded as a necessary badge of respectability. [1] The question then arose how the problem was to be solved of not discarding the badge or social cachet while getting rid of the obligation to profess any positive belief in old Theistic dogma.

It was solved on the following lines. While it was felt that to avow Atheism under that name, or in any unequivocal form, would hive meant a serious rupture with the tradition of speculative respectability, a convenient way out was found by which a man with a social position to guard might retain his disbelief in Theism, while vehemently repudiating the charge of Atheism. A new word was coined to this end by the late Professor Huxley at one of the gatherings of the old Metaphysical Society, which used to meet in the early eighties at the late Mr. James Knowles’ house on Clapham Common. To save his social and speculative respectability, the Atheist had now only to call himself an Agnostic and he was comparatively all right. A somewhat doubtful line of distinction was sought to be drawn between the alleged point of view of the despised and rejected Atheist and the relatively acceptable Agnostic. The Atheist, it was said, was a foolish, if not wicked person, who thought he could prove the non-existence of God. The Agnostic, on the other hand, was, whether one agreed with him or not, a decent and reasonable person, who did not deny the Theistic contention, but merely asserted the necessary absence of all proof of that contention as being deducible from the nature of human knowledge. The absence of any categorical denial on his part thus saved the situation as regards respectability for the happy Agnostic.

Now, as to the alleged ground of distinction between the scorned and the tolerated opinion, if we examine it, we shall find, I think, that it is more vulnerable to criticism than its protagonists imagined. In the first place it may fairly be doubted whether the Atheist supposed ever existed in the flesh – in short, whether he is not a dummy man of straw, set up by the Agnostic for the purpose of being knocked down again. Personally, I cannot recall the case of any reputed Atheist who claimed that he could prove the non-existence of the Deity as a general proposition, although he may have contended that some particular conception or definition of such a Being involved inconsistencies or even absurdities. It is certain, however, that before the days of Agnosticism any one who repudiated a positive belief in the Theists’ dogma, on the ground that the evidence of its truth was lacking, would have been counted an Atheist. But in the second place, even admitting the theoretical validity of the distinction sought to be drawn by the Agnostic between his own position and that of the Atheist, it is not difficult to show that it has no practical importance, or even significance, whatever. Between the absence of all proof of an affirmative and the presence of the proof of a negative there may be a logical distinction, but it is without practical results. We see this even in ordinary life, in a weaker form, in the distinction between an impossibility and a high degree of improbability.

Here, also, the undoubtedly sound theoretical distinction has no bearing whatever on conduct. I take an illustration I have given elsewhere. The ordinary suburban resident believes in the possibility of the fall of aerolites, and he disbelieves in basilisks (let us say); in other words, he regards the latter as an absurdity, or an impossibility. Nevertheless, if he is contemplating an evening stroll on Clapham Common, he will be just as little concerned with the undoubted possibility, albeit high improbability, of having his head smashed by the fall of an aerolite, as he would be with the absurdity or impossibility of his being scorched by the glance of a basilisk. For practical purposes there is thus no distinction between theoretical impossibility and theoretical possibility, when the probability falls below a certain standard. Hence, to come back to our original point, the Atheist’s alleged belief that the non-existence of a deity can be demonstrated, and the Agnostic’s admitted conviction that the nature of human knowledge precludes the possibility of any positive demonstration, or even probable proof, of his existence, amounts for practical purposes to precisely the same thing. Yet if the distinction commonly alleged between the Atheist and the Agnostic rests on what is little better than a logical quibble, it is not impossible perhaps, if we try, to discover a real distinction. But should we do so, it is in the region of ethical sentiment, rather than logic or speculative theory, that we must look for it.

While conceding the impossibility of proving the negative of the Theist’s contention, the Atheist may be supposed to address the Theist as follows:

“Even admitting the truth of your speculative position as to the existence of some sort of personality who is the creator and orderer of the Universe, there is nothing in the nature of the ordering of this Universe that would entitle me to regard such a being as an object worthy of my worship. To any argument based on the imperfections or positive evils of which the ordering of the world is full, you Theists of all sects and persuasions content yourselves with replying by vague assurances that, to use a vulgar metaphor, ‘it will all come out in the washing’ – that all is meant for the best, and will ultimately turn out to be for the best. In fact, in your theology and ethics you accept the position of the victim of the confidence-trick man. Just as the former is willing to hand over his cash into the keeping of a person of whose bona fides he has no evidence, so you are prepared to pledge your faith and religious ideal on the unproven assumption that the author and providence of this Universe is ethically good, and that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Now, I am not prepared to do this. Nay, further, I find you are acting more foolishly even than the victim of the confidence-trick man. The latter is usually a plausible person, at least, and his victim has nothing definite on which to base his suspicions. The case with the creator and providence whose existence you assume is far otherwise. Here the horrors and evils present in the world of his supposed creation and ordering are very real, and obtrude themselves upon our notice. In the face of these facts my conscience will not allow me to regard the author or permitter (for that matter) of these things as worthy of my respect, not to say adoration. I am not to be beguiled by cheap references to the limitations of the human faculty, by tall talk about ‘wise purposes,’ ‘beneficent ends,’ etc., in excuse for the ways of your assumed deity.

“The limitations of the human viewpoint cannot possibly justify us without other adequate grounds in concluding the very opposite of what that viewpoint indicates. The distinction sought to be drawn between action and permission, to palliate from the Theistic point of view the evils of the world, is futile. If I permit a wrong to be perpetrated which I could prevent, I am at least passively guilty of that wrong. To plead it as an excuse would be, in fact, a mean attempt to evade the moral judgment that condemns me. There is a well-known legal maxim which says ‘qui facit per alium facit per se.’ There are, moreover, certain actions and omissions, certain vile and mean lines of conduct, which no end can justify as means. The most pious bourgeois condemns the conduct of the little boy who steals-money from the till in order to put it in the missionary-box, or of the gambler who cheats at cards in order to maintain his aged mother, yet conduct which he would reprove in the little boy or the cardsharper he condones in his God. That the end justifies the means may possibly in some cases be admitted as regards Man, with his limited outlook and powers of action. But I submit that on any ethical basis it can never apply as an excuse for the prima facie evil acts of a being possessed of the power and knowledge assumed in the notion of God as the creator and providence of this world. For my conscience no amount of ‘wise purposes’ or ‘beneficent ends’ will exonerate the author of the world as it is. They are to me as the ‘good intentions’ with which the way to Hell is said to be paved. The transparent sophistry of theologians in attempting the impossible task of justifying their divinity fills me with nothing but disgust and loathing.”

Thus the Atheist. This moral attitude might possibly be regarded as differentiating the conscientious Atheist from the mere Agnostic. According to this definition, the Atheist is essentially ethical and religious in his judgment, while the Agnostic need not be so. It must be admitted, however, that the Atheist thus becomes an anti-Theist. [2]

One of the most striking phenomena of social change in the present generation, the counterpart of the rise and domination of Imperialism in politics, is the installation of imperialistic or patriotic sentiment in the place of the old religious feeling. Patriotism, as it is called, has undoubtedly taken the place formerly occupied by Christian sentiment and aspiration in the mind of the average man. This was noticeable enough before the war, but the war, of course, has thrown it into the strongest possible relief. In how many thousands of those who have volunteered for the front do we not find the ideal object for which they are prepared to sacrifice themselves to be England or the British Empire. And yet how many of those who profess, and sincerely profess, attachment to England as their ideal object, if they thought a little, would not have to admit that there is much in England, politically, socially, and morally, of which they disapprove! Yet this does not prevent the ideal of nationality from dominating their whole emotional being. Of course, to a great extent the present-day religion of patriotism has been worked up more or less artificially in the Press and on the political platform. The new religion of Patriotism is even preached by the different Christian sects as the modern expression of their creed. It is inculcated through the Boy Scouts’ movement and in the present-clay education of our youth. For the religion of Patriotism, the national or imperial State is the ultima ratio. It does not recognize any organism or collectivity as object of conduct higher than the State. Hurnanitv is for it a mere phrase. The solidarity, moreover, of those scattered through many existing States, holding like views and like aspirations, never suggests itself to it as perhaps an intrinsically higher object of conduct than any existing State, on the analogy of the mediaeval conception of Christendom. The only alternative to this erection of imperialistic jingo sentiment, under the name of Patriotism, into a religion, is Socialism. The aspiration towards a classless society and international brotherhood is for Socialism a supreme ideal of life and conduct.

The whole outlook of to-day shows the complete loss of hold of the older faith on modern society. The change of mental attitude between now and fifty years ago is enormous. It would perhaps not be going too far to say that the difference between the mental outlook of the average man of 1866 and of 1916 is quite as great as, if not greater than, that between the man of 1866 and the corresponding man of 1766. Such has been the acceleration of the tempo of social and intellectual changes within the last two generations.

Amid the various movements indicating modified views of the relations of life, what is known as the woman’s movement has not failed to attract much attention. I do not propose here to discuss this question at any length. I have already done so elsewhere. [3] But there are certain of its aspects with which one is continually confronted at the present day. The freeing of women from the conventional bonds of the society of fifty years ago has had a wide influence: among other things, it has had the result of producing a new set of sex-illusions in men. The scorning and disparagement of the old idea of the domestic function as being pre-eminently the raison d’être of woman, which has become the commonplace of many advanced circles, has led, on the one hand, to the illusion among men that they must look in their womankind not merely for sexual fidelity, and kindliness in word and conduct, but for intellectual companionship, and to the reading into their relations with their wives and other female associates an intellectual companionship which is not there. On the other hand, it has led in women to the cultivation of self-assertion and priggery, in order to make up in the eyes of men for their real intellectual deficiencies. The assumption of intellectual independence gives to the woman of the present day a special impress. Yet it is noteworthy that after the complete social and intellectual emancipation of the female sex, which has been going on now for well-nigh two generations (reckoning from its first beginnings), that the number of really eminent women of the first class has not increased. The George Sands, George Eliots, the Rosa Bonheurs, the Charlotte Brontes, all belong to the period when women were not emancipated as they are now. What has the present day to show on the score of female geniuses? That there are a sufficiency of intelligent and able women going about is of course not to be denied, but I can only recall one who could be quoted as showing an intellectual calibre which could take its place in that of the front rank of men in the same department. In the authoress of Themis we undoubtedly have, even more than in the women of earlier generations mentioned above, an intellectual power and flexibility of intellect which may truly be termed masculine.

Otto Weininger, in his book Sex and character, remarks upon the fact that in both the sexes you usually find a more or less of ingredient of the opposite sex. This may be slight and almost inappreciable, or it may be an important factor. It may manifest itself also in various ways, physically, morally, and intellectually, but the appearance at rare intervals of a woman with an exceptional muscular development, an exceptional strength of purpose (a Lady Macbeth, a Joanne d’Arc, etc.) or of intellectual perception, approaching or equalling that of the first rank of men in the same department, may fairly be regarded as examples of lusus naturae, rather than as indicating any general potentialities on the part of the female sex. Had there been anything approaching real equality in mental disposition between the sexes, this equality should, I contend, have shown itself in the course of the last half century in an unmistakable manner, and this it certainly has not done.

Those who are forever contending for the average intellectual equality of women with men, it is difficult to believe do so in complete bona fides. They studiedly ignore that prominent characteristic of the human female, the inability to follow out a logical argument, coupled with the unwillingness to admit the plainest fact or proof which tells against a cherished prejudice or emotion. How often do we find a woman, confronted by such fact or proof, stop her ears, or rush out of the room with some such phrase as “Oh, leave off, I can’t bear it!” I would ask the apostles of female equality if they have ever heard of a man acting in this way. Or, again, how many women they have known who do not change their opinions with their moods, or with changes in their relations with persons. The sort of conduct referred to belongs to the hysterical side of woman, of which so many aspects present themselves to common observation, but which Feminist advocates are often found dishonest enough to ignore or even to deny.

With all the talk of equality between the sexes, we find the notion of chivalry, based upon the opposite theory of woman’s physical and mental weakness, “moult no feather.” Women, as before remarked, are to have all the rights and responsibilities of men so long as these are honourable and agreeable, but there is no serious suggestion amongst Feminists that they should give up any of the privileges “chivalry” (so called) accords them by virtue of their sex. Evidence galore of this is to be found, not only in the comparatively unimportant manners and customs of everyday life, but in our courts of law, criminal and civil. We never hear a hint from the side of the woman’s movement that men and women convicted respectively of the same, equally heinous, offences should have the same measure of punishment meted out to them. There is no notion among the Feminist fraternity that what is sauce for the gander should also be sauce for the goose. On the contrary, every effort is made by the pretended advocates of equality to emphasize and strengthen the so-called chivalric sentiment, based on an entirely different view of the respective powers and capacities of the sexes, together with the consequences as regards female privilege deducible from that sentiment. [4] Such, in a few words, describes the body of opinion known as the woman’s movement up to the early Summer of 1914.

The attitude of public opinion as regards the marriage question, though partly coloured by the view taken of the woman question generally, is by no means altogether so. On the contrary, it runs frequently on independent lines. The question of the right of the State to determine the private relations of the individual in the matter of sex is one which has acquired increasing prominence during the present generation. Although long before the matter of private reflexion and discussion among the thoughtful, it was lifted into the arena of public debate largely through the publication by the late Mr. Grant Allen of his didactic novel, The Woman Who Did. Viewed on rationalistic principles, and apart from theological prepossessions or ethical prejudices deriving or surviving from earlier social conditions, it has become to many persons increasingly doubtful whether the sex relation in itself is a subject belonging to morality at all, any more than the exercise of any other physiological function. This, of course, at first sight wears the aspect of an astounding paradox. But it may be observed that I italicize the words in itself. For it is quite clear that in the general run of human conduct it often involves, owing to the conditions surrounding it, serious moral considerations. But the distinction between this sex question considered per se and per aliud has never as yet been kept sufficiently in view. Granting the distinction named, the question resolves itself into how far society is justified by moral pressure, or still more, through its organ the State, by compulsory legal enactment, in interfering with what is au fond a purely private and personal question for the individual man or woman. The chief point, of course, in which the sex-relation of the individual affects society in general, in fact, we may say the only point in which it directly affects it, is the question of offspring. How far can the welfare of offspring be effectively safeguarded in society as at present constituted? Is the coercion of the individual, either by moral pressure or by legal compulsion, such as the existing Marriage Laws, necessary, or is it the most effective way of achieving the end in view? An increasing body of opinion among the thinking classes of the community is tending to pronounce against the necessity and even against the practical expediency of the existing coercive Marriage Laws, and in favour of the constituting of the marriage relation as an entirely free union, or at best as one in which the law would only concern itself, as in other cases of contract, with the enforcement of the conditions, if any, originally agreed upon between the parties themselves. Marriage would become thenceforth another case of the oft-quoted principle enunciated by the late Sir Henry Maine, that legal progress is from status to contract. It is certainly difficult to see that the retention of the marriage relation as a status has been productive of the happiness or well-being of the community. That other and more efficient means of safeguarding the welfare of children than such as aim at the legal handcuffing together of the parents and the hampering of their personal freedom – for this is the result of the Marriage Laws of to-day – will hardly admit of a doubt by any open-minded person who has given the subject his careful consideration. The progress made within the last few years in intelligent public opinion as regards this question is indeed remarkable. The question of marriage has at least reached the stage in which opinions differing from the traditional and conventional ones are admitted as being reasonably and honestly held, and acted upon, by many people. It is noteworthy that some of the Suffragette leaders profess to be champions of the conventional opinions in the matter in question. Is this with a view to winning over reactionary opinion, or is it for the purpose of maintaining the unfair incidence of the present coercive Marriage Laws upon the husband, whereby the wife is enabled to browbeat him at her pleasure. In any case, the question of free or legal marriage union can at most be one of civil expediency rather than of morals. The subjecting oneself or not to a legal form, whichever way it be decided, cannot possibly be a question of morality or immorality.

Leaving social and political matters and reverting to those of religious or speculative interest, a word should be said on the comparative success in the early nineties of that singular personality known as Madame Blavatsky. Whether impostor, as most people regarded her, or not, she certainly had a somewhat sensational success in the declining years of the last century. The speculative tenets she promulgated, under the name Theosophy, or, as I believe it was originally termed, Esoteric Buddhism, were, as Professor Rhys Davies assured me, when they received their first boom, not Buddhist at all, but represented the common Yogi doctrines of India. As a matter of fact, we may trace them in Europe at least as long ago as the second century with its Gnostic systems. Especially may be noticed in this connexion the writing known as the Pistis Sophia. But mystic doctrines of a similar character are traceable in various parts of Southern and Western Asia long before the Christian Era, and, as we all know, spread throughout the Roman Empire with considerable success during the first and second centuries. They seem to have a tendency to reappear whenever a particular civilization becomes worn out and its traditional shibboleths and the notions previously binding it together are rapidly going into the melting-pot. It is true that, in our present transitional period, the ideal of social evolution has fur the first time appeared above the horizon of human thought and aspiration in a definite form, but it is not yet strong enough to supersede the old interest, among the thoughtful, in the fortunes of the individual personality or soul. To overcome, even in thought, this self-centredness of the individual self-consciousness and its interests, in favour of that which from its own standpoint is external to, and apparently detached from, itself, is indeed a hard thing for most men. Such an attitude may indeed, as every great crisis shows, obtain sporadically on a wave of exceptional enthusiasm, and be the stimulus to the most heroic self-sacrifice, but it does not endure as a permanent state of mind. Jaurès puts the thing trenchantly (L’Armée Nouvelle, p.404). Speaking with reference to the hopelessness of countless individual lives and destinies under Capitalism: “Quand on songe que dans notre univers encore barbare, la vie et la conscience sont discontinues; que chaque centre de sensibilité est impénétrable aux autres; que pour 1’individu la douleur individuelle est un absolu; que la continuité et infinité des choses sont encore tout exterieures et superficielles; que pour tout être vivant la loi se résume tout entière en son propre destin; que la trame illimitée du temps est déchirée en autant de lambeaux qu’il y a d’êtres éphémères, et que, par un surcroit de dureté et de scandale, beaucoup ont souffert et meurent sans avoir meme entrevu a quoi leur douleur et leur mort peuvent servir; quand on pense en effet a tout cela, il n’y a pas de progres social qui puisse pleinement consoler de toutes les souffrances qui en furent la rançon.”

It is undoubtedly the feeling to which Jaurès refers in this passage, of the absoluteness and intranslatability, so to say, of the individual personality and its interests, which is the stumbling-block with many in the way of an ideal, for which any given personality is rather accidental than essential. And the strength of this feeling still remaining it is on which theories of the supernatural, including many a new quackery, base their success in the modern world. This was undoubtedly the soil in which Madame Blavatsky’s propaganda struck root. The rejection of Christian dogma does not necessarily mean any lack of interest on the part of the individual in the destiny and fortunes of his own soul. The dogmatic assurances of Christian Theology in this connexion having lost their hold, refuge is sought in other means of consolement. Although I would not for a moment be understood as placing the two movements on the same level, the above remarks apply, as already- observed, at least to some extent, to the Psychical Research Society. The latter, there is no doubt, represents a movement based on scientific lines and run by men of scientific standing. But the motive inspiring many of those who take an interest in it may unquestionably be found in the clinging of many minds to the individual soul and its fortunes. It would be futile to deny the existence of this feeling in some of the best of us, but it is also absurd to pretend that, natural though it may be, there is anything specially high and noble in it, and that, on the contrary, those who find their strongest concern and supremest aspiration in the realization of a higher humanity do not represent a loftier ideal than the seekers after the destiny of their own souls.

We may conclude this chapter by noticing, in contrast to modern notions, one or two specimens of the bourgeois wisdom of one’s youth which have long since lost their savour. They afford an insight into the mentality of the British middle-class man of the early- and mid-Victorian epoch. These pieces of wisdom were coined for the purpose of edification. Thus, the youth of that period were seriously told, as an argument against the use of strong language, that it was undignified, since it implied that the man who swore did not consider his own bare word as carrying enough weight of itself to guarantee the truth of what he said. The idea of any one taking this somewhat wire-drawn piece of casuistry seriously seems funny at the present day. It would be interesting to know whether many ingenuous youths of, say, the fifties and sixties of the last century were really deterred from the expression of their feelings “in well set terms” by the terrible implication that their doing so meant that they undervalued their own character for veracity. The habitual use of strong language on any and every occasion, we may agree, is to be deprecated, as both indicating and tending to encourage an unbalanced emotional temper. But there is no doubt that there are occasions on which the employment of purpled speech is not only a useful and salutary vent to the feelings, but also impresses the hearer. In any case, the reason for abstaining from it excogitated by the pious Victorian brain is characteristic and amusing, if not convincing.

Another select specimen of edificatory Victorian wisdom on somewhat similar lines to the last may be found in the appraisement of the moral bearings of suicide, which consisted in the assertion that the man who took his own life exhibited cowardice in so doing, since his act was a proof that he lacked the courage to face the responsibilities of existence. Now, we may fairly ask ourselves whether the good Victorian souls, who felt it their duty to put forward this thesis for the sake of edification, did not do so with their tongues in their cheeks. The unsophisticated human being knows that the man who deliberately faces death in any form, and whether self-inflicted or not, is the very opposite of a coward. He may be everything else that you like, but he is most assuredly not a coward. The willingness to face death, no matter for what cause, whether it be good or bad, is of itself an all-convincing guarantee at least of one virtue – courage. No amount of feeble paradoxical casuistry will suffice to stamp the man who is prepared to do this, whatever be his motives, as other than a brave man. The universally accepted definitions of courage and cowardice essentially involve this, and the bona fides of the goody-goody Victorian moralist who would have called it in question his sophistications may fairly be doubted. We know, of course, that the habit of tampering with truth for the sake of edification is not a new one, but its ethical justification is, to put it mildly, at least highly debatable.

One of the gems of the bourgeois wisdom of the Victorian era, which was supposed by its votaries to be crushing as against all theories of economic equality, was the assumption that poverty was the result of laziness, and wealth of industry on the part of its possessors. According to the assumption in question, the existence side by side in the same society of a working class and a capitalist class was due to the fact that one set of human beings, or its progenitors, was idle and thriftless, and another set industrious and thrifty. The working classes, the wage-earners, those who live by the toil of their hands, represented the first class, those who possessed wealth and lived on their incomes-in a word, the aristocracy and the middle classes-stood for the second. The exact way in which this great economic difference came about was never explained; but the worthy bourgeois none the less persuaded himself, or professed to have persuaded himself, into a belief that it was even so – that once upon a time there existed a lot of idle, worthless rascals side by side with another set of frugal and industrious saints, and that these two sets of persons were the progenitors and the protagonists of the poor and the rich classes of to-day respectively, to whose descendants the vices of the one class the virtues and of the other had been for the most part transmitted. The above is no exaggeration of the social and economic beliefs of otherwise fairly well-educated people in this country a generation or two ago. That, speaking generally, poverty- has no more to do with idleness and thriftlessness, or wealth with industry and frugality, thorn either have with the spots on the sari, is a proposition the average bourgeois mind of the England of the fifties and the sixties of the last century would have confessed itself altogether unable to grasp. The sociological views of our grandparents on this question afford another illustration of the often-noted fact that, if the sheerest nonsense be only enough repeated and dinned into the ears of people by themselves and others, it will be accepted without further investigation as though it were a proved scientific fact. Of course, in this case the acceptance of the doctrine in question was aided by the class interest, which led to the wish to believe what was pleasant and consoling to itself.

The above illustrations are, I think, fair specimens of the lines on which the popular middle-class wisdom of a couple of generations ago ran. The idea was always edification – edification, that is, from the current bourgeois point of view – first, truth and correct reasoning very much afterwards.

We may remark, by the way, that we find substantially the same thing to-day in what is known as “judge-made law,” especially criminal law. All such judicial decisions will be found on examination to have for their end, not the logical interpretation of a law or statute, but “edification” from the judge’s point of view, to wit, the enlarging of the scope of the law as much as feasible, i.e. the bringing as many acts as possible under its ban. Thus, the decision by which, in the case of two persons agreeing to commit suicide together, and only one of them dying, the survivor is chargeable with the murder of his partner; or that other decision, according to which any one unintentionally causing the death of another person, through the perpetration of an illegal act, is likewise guilty of the crime of wilful murder, are both plainly at variance with justice, as they are with any reasonable or common-sense definition of the crime of wilful murder. These decisions, especially the last named, even amount to an impudent violation of the obvious intention of the common law, the element of wilfulness being plainly absent. It is the same with most other cases of decision-law. Statutes are wrenched out of their sockets, with the aid of the most transparent casuistry, to make them cover cases they were never meant to cover, to satisfy the lust of the judiciary for the manufacture of new crimes or the enhancing of the severity of punishment in the case of old ones, thereby increasing their own power over their victims. The flagrant and shameless violation of principle, of logic, and of right judgment in the interpretation of law by the judiciary in the interests of this theory, that it is desirable to catch as many victims a; possible in the net of the law, and thereby augment the power of its administrators, amounts to a scandal.

What changes the great World War will make in the general character of the British mind in its activities and receptivities it is of course impossible to say as yet, but, as already pointed out in the beginning of the present chapter, it seems hardly likely that views and ways of looking at things will undergo an immediate and complete transformation, although they can hardly fail to be modified by the crisis through which the world has passed since the Summer of 1914. Meanwhile, I offer these admittedly detached remarks on certain aspects of the nineteenth and early twentieth century thought to be followed up at will by those interested.




1. Even to-day we see the remains of the old obscurantist sentiment flickering in certain quarters. Thus, in journals and publications intended for general reading, we commonly find a tendency to defend as much of whilom orthodox opinion as is possible in the face of modern knowledge and modern thought generally. In any doubtful point the case is mostly presented to the general reader with the scales weighted in favour of the less heterodox view, whatever that may be. This may be regarded, let us hope, as a last dying rumble of the old intolerant thunder.

2. 1 have often thought that, given a new Dante or Milton, a great epic might be written on Theistic lines, entitled The Remorse of God, understanding by God a personal or quasi-personal creator and providence. The idea would be, admitting the essential moral goodness of the latter, his gradual awakening to a sense of the moral perversion and wickedness involved in the doing or permitting of evil for the problematical achievement of “wise purposes” and “beneficent ends.”

3. E.g. in the Fraud of Feminism (Grant Richards).

4. A striking illustration of the unfair twist to emotion given by the chivalric sentiment was afforded during the present war by the Cavell case. Amid all the admiration showered upon Edith Cavell, and indignation at her execution, not one word was heard of the case of the Belgian architect, Philippe Bancq, who was shot for precisely the same offence, at the same time and place, as Edith Cavell herself!


Last updated on 28.3.2004