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Friday, April 3, 2015

The Speaker, October 19, 1901

Dr. George MacDonald makes one of his Scotch peasant philosophers offer the rather original and imaginative suggestion that if Satan were to repent he would die, stricken down by the horror of such centuries of shame. We can imagine some such deadly awakening coming to a fool who should slay himself as the first moment of wisdom. A feeling of this kind is aroused by the Archbishop of York's proposal for a day of National Humiliation for the slow success of our arms; a proposal which, however dignified, sincere, and well-meaning, remains at the same time perhaps the most ghastly and spectral incident in the whole of this long history of distortion and illusion- an ever-increasing tide of unreal victory and unreal rejoicing finds its last and most wildly artistic consummation in an access of unreal humility. The thought of the million Maffickers really humiliating themselves makes the brain reel. If they did for one moment do so they would all rush in a simultaneous stampede, and drown themselves in the Channel.

All of us who have lived in this world and kept our eyes open know what the average man is like, especially those of us who have the inestimable advantage of being average men ourselves. We know what is the ordinary spirit of man, profoundly well-meaning, naturally magnanimous, but vain, combative and easily confused, and above all things, convinced of his own individual rectitude and importance. The idea of some twelve million grown men, a whole nation of these genial egoists, really humiliating themselves is something portentous. If it were genuine it would be an act of moral greatness, almost too awful for the common imagination to endure. It would be like the prostration of oaks and mountains, it would be something far more impressive than a day of judgment. It would achieve an act of heroism that no one has yet attempted. For, although all the dragons have been killed and all the feats of prowess laid down in romance have been tried, no hero has yet attempted to turn the other cheek. The great challenge of Christ to human courage still remains unanswered. We may be wrong, but it is still too much to ask of human nature that we should say so. But if we rightly understand the author and the supporters of the scheme of humiliation, they do not hold that we are wrong. They hold that we should prostrate ourselves because we have not as yet had sufficient success in a just and even Quixotic cause. This is a little too exacting. It is hard, it is well nigh impossible to induce the ordinary human being to humiliate himself even when he is wrong. It is too hard to ask him to humiliate himself when he is right.

The truth is, however, that the idea of humiliation puts the final touch to a philosophy which has long been suspected of vital cowardice and the lack of all moral steadfastness. In this battle we who are Liberals have not been fighting for our ideals only, we have been fighting for all ideals. It gives us no pleasure to find that at the first shock of disaster our opponents desert even their own gaudy and barbaric virtues. The attitude now adopted in Imperialist circles shows, not that we have had the best principles in this affair, but that we have had the only principles. For if we are really right in this matter, why should we humiliate ourselves? In that case we have only exchanged the labour of conquerors for the glory of martyrs. For if the Imperialist policy in South Africa is really the fairest and deepest and most sagacious, it cannot be made less fair or deep or sagacious by the fording of a river or the wrecking of a train. If it is really the wisest and kindest policy, it remains the wisest and kindest even if the last British soldier is dying upon the veldt, even if the last rag of the Union Jack is being torn down in the harbour of Capetown. We are no longer concerned to see that the Jingoes are convinced that our views are right; we are concerned to see that they are convinced even that their own views are right. If they do not think their views just, they have been following with every kind of moral bravado and insolence an unjust course. If they do think it just, they are calmly proposing publicly to humiliate justice because it does not prosper. In either case they are guilty of that darkest and oldest form of snobbishness, a cosmic snobbishness.

The curse of the age and of the Imperialist movement is not so much bigotry as the lack of bigotry, for bigotry may often be right if it persists, but frivolity can persist in nothing. A clock that has stopped is at least right twice a day; the real philosophic Conservative is right with the same regularity as a clock that has stopped. But a clock that passes its whole time in trying to copy the ten thousand clocks of the metropolis, all pointing to different hours, may never be right until the crack of doom. We have, as a party, held certain views about the real temper and outcome of the present South African policy. They may be right or they may be wrong, but at least we have maintained them in the face of the palpable advance of vast and practical manifestations of military and Imperial force. Apparently the opposition view is not strong enough to bear up against a newspaper headline announcing the rushing of a fort. The reason is that it is not a conviction at all as the champions of genuine causes, independent of their results, have understood convictions; it is not an opinion, it is a bet. Its supporters exhibit the essential superstition of the gambler. If England is really right in this affair, nothing surely could make us prouder of her than that she should, in the face of any number of defeats, refuse to humiliate herself. If her conscience is really clear, then in God's name let her front all her misfortunes with that sublime speech of Job, in which he refuses to own that he has deserved his fate: "God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove my righteousness from me." In words that have a peculiar and pungent appropriateness to the whole question, England, if her thoughts had been really clean, might have continued that superb defiance: "If I have made gold my hope, or have said unto the fine gold, thou art my confidence. If I re- joiced because my wealth was great, and because mine hand had gotten much. If I rejoiced at the destruction of him that hated me, or lifted up myself when evil found him. Did I fear a great multitude, or did the contempt of families terrify me that I kept silence, and went not out of the door? If I have eaten the fruits without money, or have caused the owners thereof to lose their life. Then let thistles grow instead of wheat, and cockle instead of barley. The words of Job are ended."

Actually, there is no Englishman who dares to address Omniscience in this tremendous language, the language of an insuperable self-respect, which would survive even an inequitable day of judgment. There is no Englishman who can defy the Eternal Reality to say that we have made gold our hope, or that we have rejoiced at the destruction of him that hated us. There is, in fact, no vital belief in the reality of our cause at all. There is no belief in the nobility of a conception, which would remain equally noble in the blackest hour of defeat, if ten armies were surrounding our soldiers and ten navies blockading our ports. Our resplendent prosperity rests, psychologically speaking, as any theft or seduction rests, upon a confidence in the silence of God. Essentially, however, the whole of our latter-day conception of exultation and humiliation rests upon a new and strangely feeble and frightened philosophy. It rests, for all practical purposes, upon ar eturn to the belief in a capricious God. There has arisen again in the last two centuries the wild old atheistic notion that we have to wait upon a blind and fantastic power, that all the wise men of the world are the slaves of a single lunatic. The Boers, it is said, are outstripping us in fighting or in prayer; let us also pray and humiliate ourselves after our defeats. Mr. William Watson, in that admirable and eloquent letter which he contributed to the Daily News, summed up the whole moral of the proposal by pointing out that the Boer humiliations took place after victories. This mere statement seems to me to hit the whole distinction in the bull’s eye.

The great curse of much of the current attitude is the tendency to become, not the servants, but the sycophants cf the universe. The great conception which lay at the back of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures was the conception that to man had been given a certain law, to champion which was his sole and simple business. "He hath shown thee, O man, that which is good," is perhaps of all earthly sayings the one which has the deepest ring; it seems, as it were, too true and simple to be comprehended. The stars in their courses might fight against his honour, scientific discoveries might make the world seem more and more perilous and equivocal: at the turning of a stone or the splitting of a sea-beast, the whole comic army might seem suddenly to desert to the devil, but man had in his heart a secret which would outlast these things; he had his orders; he was the sentinel of God. There is too much disposition today, to be, not the sentinel, but a sort of officious equerry, trying to curry favour by every experiment, and to anticipate every plan. By calling black white and evil righteousness, it is hoped that we may get some hint of the dark plan, steal some march upon the terrible beneficence. But we have begun by being cowards, and we only end by being bunglers. Our business is to love our work, to love it if the heavens fall. For the bodyguard of God is made up only of men who could be noble atheists, who could each step in the viceregal throne and stand as the only God in a Godless world.

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