Ernest Belfort Bax

Reminiscences and Reflexions of a mid and late Victorian

Chapter XII
Concluding Reflexions

In thinking back on the course of one’s past life, there are obviously many interesting reflexions which are suggested. [1] One such presented itself to me recently, when I bethought me that my own personal memory-synthesis included within its purview a span of time equal to that of the whole life of Shakespeare. It was while reading the two monumental volumes on Shakespeare’s England, recently published for the three-hundredth anniversary of his birth by the Clarendon Press, that I was led to recall the above circumstance. The celebration of the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in the year 1864 I can distinctly remember. I was at Brighton as a boy at the time, and I believe was taken to hear one of the many discourses that were being delivered on the Bard of Avon in the Spring of that year. It was about the time that Garibaldi paid his celebrated visit to England and was received with the wildest demonstrations of enthusiasm. From that time to this my memory of the main flow of events is of course distinct, and more or less continuous, and it is somewhat startling to reflect that this span of time, covered by one’s own mental experience, represents the whole life-period of the immortal one. Such a reflexion as the above is only one of the many to which the advance of age in oneself gives rise.

The changes in opinion and attitude in the British mind, as decade succeeded decade, and much more, of course, as generation succeeded generation, during the lifetime of the present writer, have been already dwelt upon in the course of these reminiscences. As illustrating again a remarkable change which has taken place within the present century owing to the progress of mechanical invention, I may note an incident which happened to me about the middle of the nineties, i.e. not much more than twenty years ago. I was speaking at a Socialist meeting, and on some objection being raised to a suggestion I made, on the ground of its involving difficulties of transit, or something to that effect, I replied that the problem of aerial locomotion would probably have been solved before long, and that airboats and flying-machines would not only supplement, but might even have superseded, the then existing methods of transit. It seems worth recording to-day that this remark of mine, made less than a quarter of a century ago, was greeted at the time with a roar of laughter from the audience, who evidently regarded it as the mad dream of an unpractical, scatterbrained Utopian, if not as an intentional joke. Looking back at the incident from the standpoint of to-day, one is inclined to think what fools peopled the world in the nineties. Yet we see similar instances of short-sightedness, even among people at other times the most intelligent.

The power to rise above the ruts of thought in which one has grown up is not everybody’s affair. The members of my audience in the nineties lead been accustomed all their lives to the notion of flying-machines and dirigible aircraft as no better than a whimsical crankism. They had never taken the trouble to reflect on the implications of the bird’s flying power, and of the quite obvious possibility of imitating and reproducing mechanically the organic conditions on which it is founded.

To take an illustration from another department. Some years ago the Socialist lecturer was constantly met by would-be wiseacres with the assertion that the stimulus of necessity, and in the last resort of hunger, was requisite to induce men to work at all, laziness being one of the fundamental characteristics of what they were pleased to term “human nature,” They had heard this thesis proclaimed as an axiom, by those whom they deemed sagacious persons, from their youth up, and never having taken the trouble to look closer into the motives of men, they had come to regard any theory which ignored it as an absurdity. This is a remarkable instance of the short-sightedness of the average man, since it requires such a very little study, or even ordinary observation, of “human nature” to show that the theory is baseless. In the first place, the phrase “human nature” itself is a very vague one, since in the course of man’s evolution it has changed its character on so many sides. But let this pass. By “human nature” the persons in question generally mean the human nature of themselves and their neighbours, in other words, human nature as moulded by the capitalist civilization of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Let us then take the men and women surrounding us to-day. If we do, we shall find that in every average normal man or woman there undoubtedly exists a strain of aversion to excessive toil, yet that there is an equal aversion to absolute idleness. Find me the most leisured man without the slightest necessity of earning his livelihood who yet does not choose to work at something or other, very often of a quite unremunerative character. I don’t say it is always useful work, by any means, but yet it is work, and sometimes hard work, and not idleness. Even the man who devotes himself to athletics, or to games such as football or cricket, as a serious business in life, without fee or reward, though it may be a question whether he is doing anything useful, is certainly not idle or lazy. He toils, and sometimes very hard, when there is absolutely no necessity for his doing so. Again, look around to-day at the numbers of men, some of them men of means, many of them leaving good and easy positions in their several walks of life, who have voluntarily accepted, not only the chances of death on the battlefield, but the arduous labours of the trenches, and that not merely without any prospect of material gain, but at a positive material loss to themselves. Once more, look at the hundreds of women who, equally without any stimulus of gain or economic necessity, have undertaken heavy, and in itself often unpleasant, work as nurses. And these cases are more the rule than the exception during these last three years. Oh, but, you will say, the force of public opinion drove these men and women to hard and unremunerative labour. Even if the statement be admitted up to a certain point, can those who say this be so dense as not to see that, in a society organized on a Socialist basis, an infinitely stronger force of public opinion would constrain men and women to fulfil their moderate and just share of the necessary work of the world? One would not deny the existence of pathological specimens of humanity to whom all work is distasteful. But such are so exceptional as to be negligible from a practical point of view. The tendency to exaggerate their numbers by superficial and thoughtless people is due to the fact that under the present anarchic conditions of society so many men are forced by circumstances to seek their livelihood in uncongenial occupations. That such persons should show an inclination at times to shirk the uncongenial work to which circumstances have condemned them does not by any means imply that they are averse to all work. In a reasonable society this fact of “human nature” would of course be taken into account. There are few men for whom some form of useful labour is not endurable or even attractive. The thing is, in the process of the education of youth, to find out what this special form of work is. To do so is indeed one of the most important functions of educational training, though as yet this function has been entirely neglected. And even if it had not been so, the results obtained would have been largely useless under present capitalistic conditions.

One of the changes which distinguishes the present generation from those preceding is undoubtedly the tendency to a mistrust of all conventional shibboleths. The present generation is quite prepared to reconsider all positions. What would formerly have been considered paradox is the breath of its intellectual life. This tendency to paradoxism with the modern man, healthy though it be in itself, is, as I have already pointed out in a former chapter, apt at times to run to excess, as possibly in the case of Shaw and his perennial paradox-joke. Shaw undoubtedly has the signal merit of having stimulated the mind of the English-speaking peoples to independent thought and Socratic questionings, but it is doubtful whether the backwash of his influence has not tended to promote a craving for paradoxical fare intellectually, which – on the analogy of the much decried craving for alcohol, or for highly spiced condiments gustatively – has destroyed all taste intellectually for plain statements of fact, not wearing the garb of paradox. Now, this is certainly not healthy. The well-known Delphic motto “Nothing in excess” applies as much to paradox as to anything else. In fact, the excess in the case of paradox, if without measure, may well have the result on the coming generation of producing a reaction by sheer surfeit. This may for the time being obscure the good effect left by the critical spirit aroused in the existing generation, with the consequence of a general reactionary falling back on old and exploded dogmatic positions, by way of relief. Such reactions are common phenomena in history. The well-known case of the generation succeeding the French Revolution may serve, mutatis mutandis, as an illustration. The present generation does not fully realize that mere paradoxical brilliancy and smartness, like everything else, may pall after a time upon the intellect satiated with it.

Again, among the special fashions of the present time is the one before alluded to in passing, namely, the elevation of the nation-State into a god or object of supreme devotion, with a corresponding cult of its own, which has really, if not nominally, substituted itself for the old religious faith. Of this sentiment, which in its present form as Imperialism is traceable for thirty years or more back, and has, as one might expect, been accentuated a hundredfold by the present war, it is unnecessary to speak. In antithesis to this cult of Patriotism, now dominant, stands the Internationalist principle of Socialism. It has been often said of late that Internationalism does not mean Anti-nationalism. But if it does not mean Anti-nationalism it certainly means anti-Imperialism. And more than this, the Internationalism of the consistent Socialist certainly does imply the relegation of nationality, or race, and all that it connotes, to a place secondary to that of Humanity. In what I may term the religion of Patriotism, of which we hear so much nowadays, Humanity merely exists as a background to “one’s country.” The first consideration is the material aggrandizement and the moral honour and glory of the nation-State into which one has been born. This is the first consideration with modern Imperialism, which is the form in which Patriotism inevitably clothes itself, in the case of a nationality that is also a great World-Power.

The conflict between these two principles, Imperialism and Internationalism, between national material interest on the one side, as opposed to human interest with its moral sanctions on the other, can hardly fail to constitute one of the great issues of the world in the near future. I say this in the full consciousness of the fact that for the time being the principle of Internationalism seems to have suffered a defeat at the hands of its rival, convinced as I am that it is no real defeat, but merely a temporary set-back ; and furthermore, that there are many among those who are heart and soul with the cause of the Allies in the present war who are so, less on the ground of Patriotism than from a desire to see justice among peoples, and the rights of our common Humanity vindicated. Of course, for the moment, the call of Patriotism has the upper hand and dominates the world, but even now the idea of the closer union of the Allied nations, though born of antagonism and war, may later on, when present hatreds have died down, be one of the factors that will pave the way for the truer and more complete Internationalism of the future.

The present war, as the Boer War and other wars have done before, gives rise to a singular ethical problem. The moral aspects of the wars in question are, generally speaking, perfectly plain. The right and wrong of the causes of the wars, i.e. the right and wrong when judged according to ethical standards universally admitted otherwise in private life, must be obvious, one would think, to any one judging impartially on the facts. Yet how is it that men of good repute personally, and decently honourable in private life, can bring themselves in international concerns to profess publicly to justify the side of their own country, when it is not merely in the wrong, but criminally in the wrong? We have all of us known, at the time of the Boer War, Englishmen who as ordinary citizens were men of integrity, truthful and fair in their dealings, and who nevertheless pretended to justify the action of the British Government in its aggression on the two South African Republics, not to speak of the “methods of barbarism” in its conduct of the war. These men ignored, or lamely attempted by falsehoods to explain away, the admitted facts of the case. To-day we see precisely the same phenomenon in the case of Germany. Here again you have men, doubtless equally honourable in their private life and dealings, who are prepared to come forth publicly and defend an act of international brigandage, and this without one word of reprobation for the further inhuman crimes committed in carrying it out. Now, how are these things to be reconciled? The self-interest of men holding positions under government, or the party considerations of politicians, no doubt is a large, perhaps the chief, factor therein. But these merely selfish reasons would hardly suffice completely to explain the case in all instances, though they might do so in some. I think we are driven to the conclusion that a genuine psychological blindness plays its part in the matter. Some at least of these men are really affected by a kind of ethical myopia for the time being; the patriotic sentiment which they have possibly inherited, or which in any case has been hammered into them from their youth up, and has lately been taking on the aspect of a religion, has unconsciously warped their whole ethical nature. Of course, there are a large number who know well enough that their country is wrong, and only defend it from interested motives. But I believe there are also some who are not consciously dishonest in the matter and to whom the foregoing remarks will apply. This will continue to be the case, it is to be feared, until the modern religion of Patriotism is supplanted in the minds of men by the religion of Humanity, the sentiment of a common human brotherhood. Once admit Patriotism as the highest sentiment, as religion, and you have the problem of contradictory Patriotisms to deal with. When they laud Patriotism, people generally mean their own Patriotism. But how about “the other fellow’s” Patriotism? How about the Prussian’s, for example? If “My country right or wrong” is a noble sentiment on the banks of the Thames, how does it look on the banks of the Spree?

Let us turn now to other phases of the modern mind. One of the curious things I have noted is the growth for at least a generation past in the medical profession of what I may term medical asceticism. Asceticism, it should not be forgotten, is quite as constant a phenomenon of human psychology as self-indulgence. We have before had theological asceticism, to wit, an asceticism based on the notion of the harsh treatment of the body being conducive to the welfare of the soul. This, of course, has played a great part at different periods in the Christian religion, but we find it largely supplanted at the present day by medical asceticism. The perennial ascetic bias of the human mind, feeling the theological basis of ascetic practice to be unsatisfactory and out of harmony with the general modern outlook on life, believes itself to have found a more satisfactory basis for the mortification of the flesh, not for the benefit of the soul of man, which has fallen into the background, but for the welfare of his body. Hence medical asceticism, which tends to reduce to the minimum, if not to utterly abolish, the lusts of the flesh and the sensible enjoyments of life, on physiological grounds. Take the case of alcohol. This is seen in the crusade, not of course against obvious excess, which every one condemns, but against alcohol altogether. [2] And this is only one manifestation of the tendency in question. It is the habit of the medical profession nowadays to forbid its patients, and to discourage, at least, on the part of mankind in general, the use or practice of anything conducive to the satisfaction or delight of the bodily sense. In all living, that which is conducive to the ease of the body is condemned. Not only in drinking is the mellowing influence of alcohol denounced as incompatible with bodily health, but the eating of everything that is palatable is declared noxious. Smoking is objected to, and has recently been sought to be made illegal for the young person.

As an instance of the curious ascetic phase through which the art of medicine is passing, I may mention that a friend of mine, who was suffering during the very hot weather from the condition of the skin known as “prickly heat,” was seriously advised by an able medical man that he should on no account indulge in cooling and effervescing drinks! This patient, I should say, in spite of the injunction, continued to take his cooling and effervescing drinks, and the “prickly heat” symptoms went notwithstanding. It is difficult for a layman to regard the prohibition in question as anything else than a piece of medical asceticism, since it seems hardly possible that refreshing beverages, which give relief and tone to the system, can have an irritating effect on the skin. It is curious, but nevertheless undoubtedly true, that at the present day there are many among the public who would lose confidence in a doctor who did not prescribe for them something of the nature of penitential and purgatorial diet. A generation or so ago the patients expected the doctor to order them highly coloured and nauseating drugs, so much so, that I knew of a medical man who used to keep different coloured waters with a little harmless but nauseous flavouring in them, to satisfy those of his patients who did not have much the matter with them, and who did not really require any medicine at all. The same practice has prevailed, I believe, in sundry London hospitals. At a still earlier date the “patient” public thought the doctor way not doing his duty if he did not prescribe copious blood-lettings. The fashion is now all for ascetic dieting ; no alcohol, no condiments, no smoking, no anything but what is to the bodily senses of man fade and insipid. As regards this whole question of dietetics, a medical friend of mine told me that in a recent interview with an elderly colleague, the author of a well-known book on the subject, he expressed his serious doubts whether the whole modern theory of diet had any scientific basis to it, to which the elder man replied, “You are twenty years younger than I am, but it seems you have already come to the conclusion at which I have only just arrived myself.” The obvious and common-sense view, one would think, would be, that it is for every human being to find out by experience what suits him or her best, and that diet is not a subject on which any effective rules and regulations can be laid down for general observance. Medical, like other fashions, have their day and cease to be, though sometimes, as with the bleeding mania, their passing may be slow.

The principles and propaganda of Feminism were running high in the land up to the outbreak of the war, and though for the time being undoubtedly overshadowed by the great events of the last two years, there is no reason for thinking that Feminism, theoretical and practical, will not reassert itself when the present crisis is over. In my book on the subject I have distinguished between political and sentimental Feminism. The propaganda of Feminism has for its practical object to exalt the woman at the expense of the man. We have had echoes of sentimental Feminism during the war itself, notably, as already mentioned, in the case of Edith Cavell, where we have a woman exalted to the rank of a demi-goddess of heroism, while of the Belgian architect, Philippe Bancq, who suffered at the same time, for the same offence against the German invaders of his country, not a word has been said. Compare the case of Captain Fryatt, whose murder was even more in contravention of the laws of civilized war than that of Edith Cavell, and yet we hear of no streets named after lain and no festivals in his honour! The general theory of sentimental Feminism seems to be that the shooting of one woman non-combatant outweighs the murder of ten men non-combatants. Such divinity doth hedge a female of the human species!

As regards the theoretical basis of the Feminist contention, a case has recently come under my notice which may serve to supplement the instances, as given in my book, of special pleading, and indeed of the complete perversion of scientific fact in the interest of Feminist theory. The object of the theorists of Feminism is to prove that woman is mentally the equal of man. If they can only make her out to be superior, so much the better. A Viennese professor, of Feminist proclivities, has recently, I think, fairly “taken the cake” (as the phrase goes) in this connexion. As is well known, it is the grey matter of the brain which is correlated with sensation, thought, and conscious action, while the white matter consists of nerve-strands communicating between the cell-group centres of grey matter. Hence the obvious fact that upon the quality and the amount of the grey matter depend the amount and quality of the intellect of the individual. Now, it is a further well-ascertained fact that the comparison of the brains of the average man and woman shows a vastly greater preponderance of grey to white cells in the former than in the latter. These well-authenticated, and hitherto universally admitted, scientific facts obviously constitute a very awkward stumbling-block in the way of the theory Feminists are anxious to propagate as regards sex-capacities. Accordingly, the Viennese Feminist professor spoken of decided to take the bull by the horns, and attack the well-established conclusions of science in this matter, by declaring the latter to be all wrong, the white and not the grey matter of the brain being the most important elements in its structure as correlated with the higher mental processes! Needless to say, the unbiased results of generations of research in cerebral structure and function stand now as firmly as ever they did, the unshotted broadside levelled against them by the distinguished Feminist Viennese professor notwithstanding. It is well for laymen to be on their guard against Feminist pseudo-science. That men professing to be savants can lend themselves to this species of charlatanry is nothing less than disgraceful.

The present war is affording a stalking-horse for more nostrums than one The trick is to trace the atrocities and misdeeds of the Prusso-German Government and armies to the absence in Germany of the influence of one’s own particular nostrum. Thus, the Feminist will try to persuade you that the crimes of the German Army are due to defects in the German character, arising from the absence of the cultus of Woman among German men and of the emancipation of Woman in the Feminist sense in the Fatherland. The shooting of Miss Cavell and sundry outrages on women in Belgium and the North of France, we are told, are referable to an insufficient spirit of gallantry or chivalry, i.e. of kowtowing to femalehood, on the part of German men. If female suffrage and female influence generally had been present in German social and political life, it is alleged, we should have had no war, or, in case of war, no “frightfulness,” and above all the sacrosanct sex would have been spared and treated with the due reverential awe which it becomes vile man to show in his dealings therewith. All this sort of talk is, I suppose, swallowed by a section of the British public at its face-value, being, as they are, utterly ignorant of the facts of the case. Either the Feminists who seek to make propaganda for their theories out of the misdeeds of the German Army do not know these facts themselves or they are dishonest in their attempt to snatch an advantage out of the war-feeling of the British public. As having had some considerable experience of Germany and things German before the war, I can answer for it that there has been now for years past as strong a current of Feminist sentiment and opinion in Germany as elsewhere, in all circles claiming to be advanced. The only difference is that in Germany, owing to Militarism with its bloodtax, the incidence of which, of course, fell exclusively on men, the injustice of allowing the sex exempted from the blood-tax to swamp with their votes the male elector who was subject to it came home, perhaps, more to the average “man in the street” than in other countries where the same conditions did not prevail. Books on Feminism had a wide circulation. Women had played a part in political agitation for a generation past, at least, in the largest political party in Germany. There was no sex-bar in the matter of membership of that party, or of the share taken in the life of its organization. There was and is, moreover, so far as I am aware, a special organization existing in Germany for the furtherance of female suffrage and other “planks” in the ordinary Feminist programme, while, morebetoken, one of its most prominent leaders is more violent in her jingoism than Count Reventlow himself. All the talk about the position of the German woman, by those who have never lived in Germany, and do not in most cases even know the language, deserves nothing but contempt. It serves the purpose, however, I suppose, of Feminists and advocates of female privilege in general, for pointing a moral and adorning a tale in favour of their own nostrum.

The trick of using a wave of war-hatred and prejudice for the purpose of snatching an advantage is not a new one, and Feminists are not the only offenders. In the present instance the religious bodies are quite equal to trying-on the same game. Just as certain Feminists seek to make out the “frightfulness” of the German Army to be due to the absence of Feminism in Germany, so the Christian sects want to make it out to be due to German lack of “religion” and the influence of “materialism.” This in face of the fact that the Kaiser talks more about God than all the prominent military and political personages on the side of the Allies put together, and that the most truculent incitements to national hatred and cruelty have been formulated from the pulpits of German Protestant pastors. They ignore at the same time the circumstance that the majority of the educated as well as the working classes of the French nation are avowedly freethinkers, and yet the French Army has not developed any “frightfulness” as yet, so far as I am aware. Of course, they will say, I suppose, that German religiosity is not of their own true, genuine, and approved brand. This is the usual retort, and one that anybody can make, but the fact remains that you have in Germany all the accredited forms of Christianity represented, Catholic and Protestant, with their services every Sunday, as in other countries. As for the decline in the belief in dogmatic theology, that is not peculiar to Germany, but is common to the whole civilized world.

If I mistake not, the “social purity” mongers have also made an attempt to snatch their bit of advantage by exploiting current anti-Germanism. According to them, of course, the evil mentality from which the German nation is alleged to be suffering at the present time is due to an insufficiently severe standard of sexual manners in their unhappy country. Now, this statement, I do not hesitate to say, speaking in comparison with other countries, has no foundation whatever in fact. Not only is there not a trace of evidence that laxity in sexual behaviour is more prevalent in Germany than among any other European peoples, but, if one comes to that, the Balkan populations, including the Servian and Roumanian, will probably be found on investigation to be farther from the chaste heaven of the “social purist” than any section of the German nation. Besides, it is well known that there was an active “social purity” campaign in Germany before the war, which was not, I believe, the case in (say) France or Italy. I can recall in the Spring of 1914 reading a long report in one of the leading German newspapers of a great “social purity” meeting in Frankfort, in which those enrolling themselves in the league by which the meeting was called were required to take a pledge never under any circumstances to utter a loose jest, or to tell a story that might raise the colour on the most sensitive maiden’s cheek! Besides, as regards cruelty, it would not be difficult to show, if one wanted to, that there is a tendency in the “social purity” campaign itself to develop cruelty : witness the flogging clauses of the so-called “White Slave” Act of 1912. No, it is assuredly not the absence of “Feminism” or of “religion,” or of “social purity” which is responsible for the aggressive war-mania of Germany, or for the way the war has been conducted by the German Army. It is the ascendancy of Prussia and the Prussian military caste throughout the German-speaking countries of Central Europe, its material power in government, and its moral influence derived therefrom, with its inculcation of war and military glory as the highest aim of the nation – this is the all-sufficient explanation of what has happened. The disingenuous attempts to exploit the situation in the interest of special nostrums are beside the mark and altogether lacking in basis.

In the short sketch contained in the present volume, we have come into contact with many social and intellectual changes, in this country especially, though corresponding changes might easily be traced throughout the civilized world, many of them by no means slight in their character, within the limits of a lifetime, representing at the moment of writing scarcely two generations.

The economic changes that have taken place, considerable though they have been, have not been fundamental. They have been on the line of continuous development, rather than revolutionary in character. The great industry of modern times was already in full swing when I was born. All the main trunk-lines of the English railways have been in existence as long as I can remember. The modern forms of industry, commerce, and finance were already in substance firmly established a generation or two before I was born. Great as has been their development during my lifetime, they are not changed in essentials. The “opening-up” of the outlying, the barbaric, and savage parts of the earth to capitalistic enterprise and exploitation has gone on apace with geographical exploration and discovery. The great capitalistic era has given birth to Socialism as an active faith and ideal with a large section of the working-classes, and with thinking men and sincere well-wishers for Humanity among all classes. The growth of socialistic sympathy among large sections of the population, as well as the formation of a Socialist party that counts in all countries, are events that have evolved themselves since my youth. Of the further development of these factors, or of the appearance above the horizon in the near future of new factors, I refrain from speculating at the present moment. Qui vivra verra! – whether I shall be one of those who will see them I know not.

In politics I have seen the aftermath of the ’48 movement, and the rise of the new spread-eagleism, the political side of the latter-day developments of Capitalism, with the race of modern armaments which has issued in the present World War. I have witnessed the growth of this upas-tree of modern Imperialism in all civilized countries-the rush for new markets and for new populations to force under the yoke of wage-slavery, and all under cover of the hypocritical “swindle” of Patriotism, the “white man’s burden,” and so forth. At the same time I have witnessed the birth and growth among the various nations of the tender plant of Internationalism, and have done my little to promote it; and although for the moment beaten down by the winds of national hatred and passion, I am more convinced than ever that before another two or three generations are passed it will have grown to be a mighty tree, while the principles opposed to it will be withering beneath its shade, as the ideal of national independence will largely have given way before that of national interdependence.

In Philosophy, when I began my studies the British empiricists and the Scottish Psychologists held the field. Mill, Bain, and Lewes, on the one side, and Hamilton and Mansel on the other, were in their glory. But the great English philosopher of the seventies and eighties was Herbert Spencer, whose “synthetic philosophy” was regarded as the last word of speculative wisdom. By way of reaction there is now, of course, a tendency unduly to depreciate Spencer. This period was followed by the rise of the young Hegelian school at Oxford, partly influenced by a book published some years before, Hutchison Stirling’s Secret of Hegel, This movement, which ran on for many years, met with its reaction at the opening of the twentieth century, in the shape of various counter-currents, such as Pragmatism at Oxford, and the Philosophy of Henri Bergson, in which the Concept is discredited, and Sense and Immediate Consciousness as the content of Time take the place of the Absolute. The late Professor Sidgwick is reported to have said on one occasion, shortly before his death: “One of the things I could never understand is the relation of the Absolute to Time.” This difficulty of interpreting to oneself the inner meaning and significance of Time as regards the Absolute I confess to having felt, and hence can sympathize with. Bergson cuts the knot, if I understand him rightly, in identifying Time with the Absolute sans phrase.

But perhaps the most remarkable, and in the true sense of the word epoch-making, change which has taken place within the experience of my lifetime has been the outlook opened up to civilized mankind at large by the doctrine of Evolution. When I was born the notion of Evolution was the dream of a few isolated thinkers. Now it is the basis of Civilized Man’s conception of the Universe. This stupendous revolution in the intellectual outlook is comparable, mutatis mutandis, with the revolution in material things consequent on the transformation of the conditions of human life wrought by the introduction of the machine industry and the new methods of locomotion in the early part of the nineteenth century. The intellectual world, before and after the acceptance of the doctrine of Evolution, is in its own way analogous to the material world before and after the introduction of machinery, so far as regards the chasm that divides the two epochs from one another – in other words, that separates the world of to-day from all previous periods of human history. The changes I have witnessed in the fifty-odd years which these reminiscences cover, as regards speculative thought, religious sentiment, and toleration of opinion in the British people, are sufficiently dealt with in previous chapters of this book.

When one considers the fragment of the course of history through which one has lived, with its passing show, and the queer personalities that have come and gone while it lasted, the usual reflexions on the evanescence of human interests and concerns crowd in upon us.

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where jamshyd gloried and drank deep
And Bahram, that great Hunter – the Wild Ass
Stamps o’er his Head and he lies fast asleep.

So it is with the transience of our mundane affairs. But as regards the actual scenes of our doings and sufferings through life, “Old Khayyam” at least had the prospect of his “wilderness,” which he found “Paradise enow,” remaining after his death as it was in his life, while we, living in the great capitalistic era, have to see the “wildernesses” and “paradises” of our youth become the emplacement of slums or factories even before we die. I, for my part, should not mind the lion and the lizard disporting themselves on the sites of my youthful or mature relaxations, but I must confess I do resent the thought of the railway company keeping them in a metamorphosed condition as shunting yards. I would certainly much rather think that the lion and the lizard keep the Halls where I had “gloried and drunk deep” (not that I ever did so), than that their sites should be reserved, not for the roar of the lion, but for the shriek of the steam whistle. Such is sentiment!

The interest and utility for future ages of the class of literature of which the present work may be taken as a humble and imperfect example have never as yet been fully recognized. The historian, who has made it his task to resuscitate for his contemporaries a period of the past, can never have too much contemporary material of this kind at his disposal. In some respects, the less brilliantly original the writer is, provided he is but a fairly keen observer and gifted with average powers of generalization, the more valuable are his notes and comments. Of this fact Pepys’ Diary is a crucial illustration. Pepys was by no means a man of genius, but his Diary has justly become a classic, as affording us an insight into the real life lived in England in the second half of the seventeenth century, such as we have for few other periods. What would the modern classical scholar not give to have such an imperfect set of reminiscences and reflexions even as those contained in the foregoing pages, written in the year 116 by an inhabitant (say) of Rome, Alexandria, or Antioch, born in the year 54. How many points would be made clear concerning that interesting period of the world’s history, which are hopelessly obscure to us now. It would not be amiss if, say, in some family where the literary faculty were not wholly lacking, it should be regarded as a sacred duty for one member of the family, at least, in every generation, on reaching sixty years of age, to pen, for better or for worse, his own account of the times he had lived through. Such a series of autobiographical sketches succeeding each other in a continuous chain of varying literary or intellectual merit, some clever, some commonplace, or even stupid, would be an aid in the distant future to the appreciation of past history which would be simply priceless, as compared with anything the present-day historian has at his disposal for his investigations into the historical period he may be at work upon. If but one person in every generation, before passing into the eternal silences, would leave as a legacy to future mankind a systematic sketch of the inner life of the world and his relations to it, for the fifty or sixty years that his experience covers, he would be performing a real, and, as far as it went, inestimable service to the understanding of human psychology in its historical development, and to laying the foundations of a scientific theory of history.




1. I must ask the reader to excuse these concluding reflexions being somewhat varied. Their connexion one with another consists mainly in their reference to the present time and its contrast to former periods within my personal experience.

2. It is a noteworthy fact that the physical degeneration of the Scotchman of to-day is coincident with an increasing abstemiousness as regards whisky. There was, I believe, a Royal Commission established to inquire into the causes of Scottish degeneracy before the war, and, so far as I am aware, no report has as yet been made. It is not probable, however, that in the present anti-alcoholic state of public opinion emphasis would be laid by any Royal Commission on these facts, still less any correlation be admitted between them.


Last updated on 29.3.2004