G.K.’s Weekly, September 11, 1926
It is really a rather glorious and joyous mode of living to be an unconscionable long time dying. There is a certain optimism, in the poetic sense, in the pessimism of the poet who said that our souls are love and a perpetual farewell. Our appreciations would be more intense if we felt this finality, even if we felt it over and over again. It would be better for the blind and thankless to believe that the flowers at evening closed their eyes like the dead or that every sunset was a positively last appearance of the sun. It would be well if friends and lovers always said farewell as if they said farewell for always. And even here there is the paradox of optimism hidden in the words of pessimism. It is odd to think that even the very words “Farewell for ever ” actually mean “Live happily ever afterwards.” But anyhow it is true that we should feel the wonder of the world more vividly if we felt the end of the world more near. It would be well if things that come again and again were treated rather as a renewal than a recurrence. For the wise the world is always on the edge of ending; with every night a deluge of darkness and every daybreak a day of judgment. I do not go so far as to suggest that you or I should every night be subjected to a little experience of premature burial; with reasonable arrangements for our resurrection. But it would give a zest to life to return to this world every morning as a ghost; especially if our friends and servants were tactful enough to utter loud shrieks and flee, to give completeness to the symbolic drama. Perhaps if we were really awakened to the wonder of life, we should shriek more at the sight of a living than of a dead man walking. But in this world, and especially in this mechanical and materialistic world, it is hard for most people to appreciate life until it is brought almost to the point of death; or to realise creation until they hear the crack of doom. Most of them are made to live a life of impersonal routine which panders horribly to this passive ingratitude and indifference to conscious life. That is why, even in this lighter sense, it is essential to say “Regard the end.” There is apparently a considerable sect drifting about nowadays, who predict the end of the world in the words of the encouraging war-cry: “Millions now alive will never die.” Alas, it would be a truer testimony to the judgment of this world, if they cried: “Millions now alive will never live.” But I was only moved to these rambling reflections, in the first instance, because it occurred to me that this paper is one of the few things in the world which is appearing as things ought to appear; that is, in a perpetual repetition of a positively last appearance. Some of our very kind friends called us before the curtain after the curtain was rung down; and when we were supposing, with a sigh of mingled emotions, that we had ranted and fretted our hour upon the stage. The misguided friends have given us another call; and there is no saying how many encores we shall take. It is therefore in a special sense a cause for mystical wonder to me, when the paper comes out somehow and manages to look like something. But there is a further reason for this feeling, in the conditions under which it is forced to appear; working with a very small though very self-sacrificing staff and subject to all the jerky surprises of the journalistic life. The stars and flowers do not, to all appearance, have to go through such struggles in order to be born; and their workmanship in consequence shows less signs of haste. The sun and moon do not appear upside down; or rather it is their good fortune that it does not matter if they do. But my own portrait, however amorphous, can still be dimly recognised as being the wrong way up: and any little errors of that sort in the publication or the printing have been apologised for in advance. But last week, my central article had to be finished under peculiar conditions of crowding and cramping and what we call in our trade cutting. I fear it is possible, therefore, that the end of it was very amorphous indeed. I doubt whether I managed in that” space to convey the conviction which I was really advancing in answer to my critic; and I therefore add these paragraphs by way of a postscript or note on the controversy. This also may be a word of parting, for all I know; but I should not wish to part with a misunderstanding.
The general suggestion with which I had intended to conclude was this. My critic had praised squires in preference to priests, upon the ground that the former at least did not bring in fantastic and fabulous beliefs. He also praised the squires because their general over-lordship was useful to cover all that margin of mankind that could not be covered by our political scheme, or perhaps any political scheme. We set out to make as many people as possible independent; but some will still be dependent; and these (it was implied) had much better be dependent upon the squires. Now to these two suggestions I reply in substance; on the contrary, when we do really come to those men of the margin, we shall really want exactly the sort of thing that priests can give and squires cannot give. If we do really try to deal humanely with landless men, and even lawless men, with tramps or vagabonds or even habitual criminals, we shall find ourselves in crying need of the very thing that my critic scoffs at; and there will be no substitute in anything that my critic supports. Our action towards the landless, or men otherwise at loose ends, must be either economic or charitable; though not in the cheap and contemptuous connotation to which we have degraded the word charity. The squire vaguely recognised a sort of sentimental mixture of the two; but it is by no means true that his patronage always erred on the side of sentiment. The typical case of the casual vagabond is the poacher. I imagine it will not be pretended that the squires were uniformly just to the poacher. But in my ideal social scheme, these two things would be met more thoroughly, precisely more theoretically. Where there is real wealth for real wages for real workers, there is no reason why that wealth should not be produced and shared by a guild of the workers; as, for example, a guild of the miners. But if the mines cease to produce real wealth for real wages, then the thing has no longer an economic basis, but it might still have an ethical basis; if we could find any eccentric people who were so exceedingly ethical as actually to want to help humanity for nothing.
An uneconomical motive is a very economical thing. It is as cheap as a natural force; especially when it is really a supernatural force. If there are people so convinced of the supernatural that they will work only for a divine reward or a merely mystical love of men, those people are as important a part of economic effort as if they were rivers or tides or electricity. It is useless to sneer at their supposed belief that men may grow horns, when they will in fact look after men who have lost hands and eyes and legs and arms. Now I shall always believe that the sixteenth century at the beginning of the modern world, destroyed masses of moral ammunition, burned stacks and stores of spiritual food, wrecked engines that were gigantic in their potentiality for ethical and economic effort; disbanded armies that might have saved the world. I do not say that the monastic institution, or even the more popular organisation of the friars were then all that they might have been, or that they were always directed to the wisest ends for the world as it was then developing; I do not think they were. But the question I mean is that of destroying the power and the possibility. By two essential characters, by their unselfish motive and by their military organisation, they were the very powers that might have been turned to grappling with the great modern problem; and recovering the lapsed margin of mankind. By hypothesis of holy obedience, they could be turned on to any work; and by hypothesis of holy poverty, they would not have taxed the world for any wage. I do not say they would have developed no problems or defects of their own; but the principle would be sound; it is for the king to ensure justice and for the saint to ensure charity. The world took the other way; and we have seen the end of the way. Instead of urging charity on the voluntary poor, it demanded it of the voluntary rich. For the riches of the new aristocracy of the Reformation were very voluntary indeed. Hence we had first the hazy obligation of the squire in the patronage of the poor, ‘unpleasantly varied with the persecution of the poacher. Then we had the other sort of rich man who was worse than the most wicked squire; the philanthropist. We had the new squire who was not even a gentleman, often not even an Englishman, who had cheated the poor for thirty years as a company promoter or a money-lender; and in his last years spent a little of his money in drawing up rules and regulations for the people he had swindled. All this is only charity in the sense that it is not justice; but certainly it is not economic supply and demand. We do feel the necessity of dealing with a social fringe and even a social mass, that cannot be so dealt with on purely economic terms. Only we leave it in charge of any dirty rascal who has amassed money enough to do it; instead of looking for charity from the good man, who has renounced his share or is ready to share with others. We prefer the scoundrel, who is rich enough to do it for vanity, to the saint who is poor enough to do it for humility.
While therefore I believe that non-proprietarian labour could perfectly well be organised in guilds and unions in a proprietarian state, I fully admit that there is some labour that is not only non-proprietarian but almost non-productive. I believe a problem of that sort could have been dealt with by the work and wealth of the monasteries or the popular organising powers of the friars; and from men of that type you could at least ask (I am far from saying that from men of any kind you would always get) a forbearance and forgiveness which perhaps cannot be asked, and certainly cannot be got, from the average country gentleman confronted with the destroyer of his game.
The highest use of the imagination is to learn from whatever happened. It is to gather the rich treasures of truth stored up as much in what never was, as in what was and will be. We are accused of praising and even idealising retrograde and barbaric things. What we praise is the progress which was for those retrograde things prevented; and the civilisation that those barbarians were not allowed to reach. We do not merely praise what the Middle Ages possessed. It would be far truer to say we praise what the Middle Ages never possessed; what they were never allowed to possess. But they had in them the potentiality of the possession; and it was that that was lost in the evil hour when all other possessions became a matter of scramble and pillage. The principle of the guild was a sound principle; and it was the principle and not only the practice that was trampled under foot. The ideal of the friar was the right ideal; and it was the ideal and not only the reality that men were forbidden to realise. It was all the best potentialities of the age. Things often still young and growing, that were cut down in the panic that followed the blind wrath of the king; even as another king sat in his dark pavilion curtained against the blazing star; and heard the cries of the dying children who never grew to be men.