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Gospels of Anarchy and Other Contemporary Studies . Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
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I HAD intended the postscript should be about this book of mine, putting a thread of connection through these essays, and telling the reader, or at least the Reviewer, what it is all about. There were several things to explain, the title for instance, and what was meant by gospels and what was meant by anarchy. Such postscripts (and similar prefaces) are amusing enough to write, if not to read; with some of charm there must have been in the old‐fashioned masked ball, where bona fide explanations were taken for mystifications and vice versa. Moreover, after a volume‐full of studies of other people’s philosophy, one feels inclined to air one’s own a little, and talk about oneself. This postscript therefore was to have been about my own book, and not at all about that letter to Mr. Wells. And now instead ....

For Mr. Wells possesses the intolerable power (the more intolerable that I enjoy the abuse of it) of setting me off thinking anew when I have shaken down comfortably among my own ideas and do not page: 354 want to hear any more of his. Thus, since printing that letter (in the Fortnightly Review) which was to have settled Mr. Wells and Utopias for good and all, so far, at least, as concerned myself, I have read the book on America, and am once more perplexed (and delighted) in my mind.

Perplexed on various points, which may be summed up thus: Can Mr. Wells be right and I be wrong? Is it possible that my obduracy about Samurai and New Republicans, about constructive socialism and the deliberate scheming out of the future, briefly, about the acceleration of progress by intentional effort, can this, my hardened incredulity, be the result merely of...well, let us say of my having been born under the sign of Laissez Faire, more precisely at the conjunction of Herbert Spencer and Buckle, moreover, in the darkest middle of the dark Nineteenth Century? Otherwise stated: is there really a change abroad, has the new century ushered in new relations between Thought and Practice which we, of the old time, cannot appreciate or even see? The supposition of being in the wrong is always annoying; and the worst of the matter is that I shall never know whether I am or not. For how can superannuated thought think itself out of date? So, like the inquisitive lover in that Tuscan folksong, I should like to die (but Mr. Wells also) a little temporary death, in order to see, not who would weep and who would laugh over our respective biers; but which of us two, Mr. Wells or I, is going to be regarded as the more delightfully quaint by retrospective readers of, let us say, the year Two Thousand.

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The regrettable imperfections in the Automatic Futuroscope and the Phonograph of the yet Unspoken making it so far impossible to gratify this legitimate curiosity, I shall try and cheat my impatience by informing Future Ages and Mr. Wells what proposals I am willing to make for the benefit of posterity, and what improvements nice people of to‐day might really attempt with a view to making the people of the future a good deal nicer than themselves. And in so doing I shall be explaining the title of this volume of essays, and what I mean by gospels, and what I mean by anarchy.


No longer having a Personal Divinity to whom to devote our surplus moral energies, we many of us want to do something for the Future. We are beginning to substitute for the Grace before meat of our Fathers a less outspoken and less regular, but only the more sincere and efficacious little silent ceremony of thanksgiving whenever we become aware of something fortunate in our daily life. But not of thanksgiving only; there is a spice of fear, and, in consequence, a desire of atonement: Has not someone suffered in the production of this excellent food for body or soul? What of the midnight baker, the serf‐ploughman? With what has the oven been heated, and the soil (we have heard of blood for such uses) been manured? The thought not merely of the present toil and want underlying our leisure and luxury, page: 356 but of all the past ruthlessness of law and custom which has brought about our morality, all this is apt to upset the balance of our satisfaction and to cause intermittent or steady impulses towards bringing our purer will, our clearer intelligence, as some sort of oblation. The evil of the Past shall be atoned for by the Good of the Future! And, once more, we are becoming millenarians.

In this feeling, shared with all religiously minded rationalists of to‐day, Mr. Wells and I are fraternally united. We both of us believe in a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. The difference between us is, that while Mr. Wells would set Disinterested Thinking and Impersonal Feeling the task of actively and positively bringing about this millennium; I should be satisfied with preparing such thought and emotion for service against the coming of the new dispensation, and my wildest hopes would be exceeded if such thought and emotion could cease to be a stumbling‐block in the meantime.

In that letter of mine to Mr. H. G. Wells, I expressed my conviction that what small amount of civilisation mankind has hitherto achieved is due not so much to any intellectual and moral efforts, as to mankind’s uneasy shifting of burdens and snatching at solaces; in fact, not to the thought of the future but to the care for the present: a process of improvement unconscious and automatic like the Universe’s other processes; like them also in the highest degree wasteful and dilatory. And one of my reasons for this belief is that the bulk of the thinking and feeling intended to help on human improvement has really page: 357 not been good enough for the purpose. Not good enough in the sense of not sufficiently impersonal and disciplined.

This may seem odd, because the unpracticality of ninety‐nine hundredths of all philosophical and religious thought and feeling has made people think that it is if anything too wise and too noble. As a matter of fact, however, in no other fields of human activity has unruly impulse raged with such impunity. For consider: in all practical relations of life the Old Adam of one man is kept within bounds by the Old Adam of another; and is checked moreover by the common consent of the majority, with its master of the ceremonies or policeman. But no such official has ever existed with regard to the things of the spirit. People have indeed been taught, often with demonstrations by the Secular Arm, what to think on certain questions of metaphysics and mythology. But at no time of the world’s history have they been taught how to think whatever they did think: how in the sense of with what degree of self‐assertion and self‐contradiction, of aggressiveness or equivocation. Indeed, the lack of discipline, of decorum, nay common decency, in mankind’s carriage of their own thought, may be due in part to the theological habits in which, through tradition and through reaction, most thinkers have been brought up. There is a saying of M. Renan’s, that the conception of such a thing as abstract truth was fostered, if not originated, by the doctrinal disputes of early Christianity. And this seems likely, if we mean that theology encouraged the metaphysical habit of considering truth as a kind of entity which a man page: 358 could or not possess and reverence, and the respectful possession of which sacramental entity sent a man to heaven, instead of to prison and to hell. We are so accustomed to this attitude as not to perceive the grotesqueness of an individual pretending, or believing himself, to be not a human being who has learned and unlearned and is busy thinking out some question, but an oracle‐mouth, connected telephonically with the Everlasting Mysteries, and out of which only Truth can be muttered or bellowed: the stoled and mitred We of the Church, surviving dowdily as the We of the Daily Press. Be this as it may, the theological habit of taking for granted, like the legendary Master of Balliol, that what I don’t know isn’t knowledge has to answer for such immodesty and violence in the realms of thought (usually described as serene)as would have otherwise been impossible from individuals who, when not acting as mouthpieces of eternal verity, were perfectly decent, modest and rational. Religious training also, with its constant commentary on the prognostications and anathemas of a school of particularly enigmatical and vituperative Hebrew dervishes, has accidentally accustomed us to endure and even to assume the prophetic attitude; since, when one comes to think of it, the possession of exceptional psychological acumen, of generous purpose and of splendid expression, is not naturally and necessarily allied with the intellectual bad manners and uproariousness indulged in with impunity by Carlyle and Ruskin, Tolstoi and Nietzsche. While, on the other hand, theological disputations, those wonderful jousts of syllogisms with which Abélard or St. Bernard seem to have starred it through all the page: 359 capitals of Christendom, have left behind a tendency towards using argument not as a tool for sorting facts, but rather as a weapon for cleaving the skull of an adversary; thus grafting some of the prize‐fighter’s brutality on to the more delicate and amiable acrobatic tricks of thought handed down by the sophists of antiquity.


And here I see an opportunity of doing what, after all, I ought to do, namely, say a word or two about my own book and its title and sub‐title. For this volume appears to be, more than anything else, an unintended exposure of such intellectual disorder as we have just been discussing. Unintended; since these essays are in the most literal sense marginalia, mere puttings into shape of the notes taken, often with a pencil on the poor defaced books themselves, in the course of my readings; and the title, “Gospels of Anarchy,” has been extended from the initial essay to the whole volume because the connecting thread throughout it all appears to be my effort to extract some kind of order from the anarchy of the authors under consideration. In every case, even that of the novelists, my marginal notes reveal the need of saving that part of my teachers’ teachings which I could subscribe to from the mass of illogical or exaggerated notions in which it is embedded. The professed anarchists under examination, Stirner, Ibsen, Whitman, Brewster, and Barrès, nay (I am sorry to have to tell him so!) Bernard Shaw, are by no means more subversive, in their most intentional sub‐ page: 360 versiveness, than the other apostles who did not dream of preaching or practising intellectual anarchy. On the contrary, one might almost say that the disorder, the passionate unruliness, the blind following of individual impulse, the derision of what other men have thought, the setting at defiance of the modes according to which all mankind has learned to think, the intellectual anarchy, in short, is greatest among upholders of old religious dogmas or ethics, and the framers of carefully thought‐out systems. For let me explain once more what I mean by intellectual anarchy. It does not imply revolt from the creed in which a man has been brought up: Ruskin, for a good half of his life, was intellectually lawless precisely because he tried to explain æsthetic and moral phenomena by the theological notions of the past: it is disorderly to connect the political fall of Venice with Palladian architecture, and the inferiority of the later Scaliger tombs with the vices of despots. It is disorderly, when a man has emerged as far as Ruskin in his later and socialistic writings, still to continue thinking in terms of Original Sin. Even at the time of “Fors,” Ruskin was haunted by the notion of a devil, however metaphorical, lurking in our paths, of Evil, with a capital E, poisoning the well‐heads of all the holiest things. Ruskin ceased to believe in Christian dogma; but he retained the theological habit of contempt and condemnation which, with; its artificial raising of the judge over the judged, brings with it so much moral perversion and cruelty, so much intellectual crookedness and refusal to see. And these things also are disorder in the spiritual realm; disorder none the less page: 361 real because it is the disorder inherited from an over‐conservative Past, as distinguished from the disorder threatened (like that of professed anarchists) by an impatient Future.

Similarly it is disorder in the kingdom of the spirit when one of the noblest and most lucid of thinkers, the incomparable Nietzsche, allows himself, and is allowed by his disciples, to display in his years of saneness the terrible taint of approaching insanity. It is disorder equally when a man capable of being a physician of the soul’s diseases like Nordau, permits himself, and is permitted, to diagnose a whole century’s worth of art and literature as the production of various kinds of mania. Disorder that one of the most unflinching discoverers of social untruth, Tolstoi, condemns not one century’s art, but nearly all the art of all the ages, because it does not point the moral like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” And—if I may re‐state my perhaps audacious opinion—when an illustrious psychologist like William James preaches the Will to believe, there is not merely disorder postulated in the dislocated universe, but disorder actually present in the little world of writers and of readers. I have emphasised, in my previous sentence, the words “allowed” and “permitted.” For part of our habitual intellectual anarchy consists in the fact that instead of mitigating and checking the extravagances to which solitary irresponsibility may lead a thinker, disciples and adversaries must really be charged with the worst of them. For disciples do not become disciples at all unless you furnish them with something wherewith to startle the neighbourhood and annoy their elders; they insist on page: 362 your knowing your own mind to the extent of leaving no mind worth knowing; and they thus arrest the natural process by which a thinker drops some of his own mistakes and picks up some of the truths of his rivals: like nothing so much in their action as those parasites whose presence in the body determines ossification of the tissues, premature senility, and a tendency to paralysis or to mania. Should this seem the sour‐grapes of a writer chiefly notable for never having had a disciple, let the reader rummage in his memory for any case of a wise man being brought to book by a modest “Aren’t you exaggerating, O Master?”—No: the chorus of disciples is always ready with its “Assuredly, O Socrates—”

The adversaries, on the other hand, misunderstanding and misrepresenting, merely exasperate the Sage or Prophet into caricaturing his own ideas in order to oppose theirs. Nor are the criticising adversaries the worst: your original thinker is usually exasperated into absurdity by the fact of criticising some one else, indeed, of recognising the existence of any tendency or views contrary to his own, even if they have been there for centuries, or rather particularly if such is the case. Thus, the fact that Christ’s preachings of mansuetude had had a considerable audience, was, from the practical standpoint, an indication that there is something to be said for Christian virtues and even a place for them in the economy of the reasonable and self‐respecting soul. But to Nietzsche (who in such things was not more of a maniac than many other great thinkers) this popularity of Christian ethics was a clear proof that they were unsuitable to the Super‐Man; and so, quick, hand me page: 363 the hammer of Zarathustra to smash them all in smithereens!

Of course, it must be said that the Founder of Christianity had in his time laid about him pretty freely against Pharisees and Scribes; and had exacted rather much from the rich young man who was willing to sell part of his estate; in fact so much that the young man seems to have decided to sell none at all. And, in those sacred steps of moral exaggeration, Tolstoi has surely made up for Nietzsche’s Egoism by condemning smoking and bicycling and scented soap as incompatible with love of one’s neighbour .... Thus, taken as a class, moralists and religious teachers of all times have asked too much to obtain anything save dead‐letter and reaction; apostolic and Franciscan and Puritan Christianity on the one hand, and all the various Stoical and Rousseau‐ish Reason and Nature Worships, on the other, showing us the bankruptcy of all such high‐flown unpracticality. While as to the various doctrines erecting the Ego as the centre of all things and inculcating, like that of M. Barrès in his pre‐Nationalist days, the cultivation of the Moi, their only recommendation is that they should have ended off in the delightful comedies of Mr. Bernard Shaw.

There remain to be considered those philosophers who, leaving morals alone, have undertaken to furnish mankind with the necessary amount of abstract Truth, and to train it to clear and honest thought. This object has been sought chiefly by building symmetrical systems on the sites previously occupied by their rivals’ gazebos, or out of the discarded materials of some crumbled edifice of belief; so that any durable page: 364 result has usually been accidental, or at least incidental. A very remarkable book I have lately been reading, the “English Rationalism in the Nineteenth Century” of my old friend Mr. A.W. Benn, has left me with an overpowering impression that the most useful work of modern philosophy (a work, as the Education Bill shows, very far from completed!) has been the slow and arduous casting away of a portion of the Philosophy of Antiquity and the Middle Ages under the name of Established Religion, together with some picturesque remnants, accidentally mixed up with it, of even more venerable, indeed pre‐historic, rites and regulations concerning sacrifices, fetishes and totems. Moreover, this indispensable piece of work, besides being merely negative and destructive, has been carried on mainly in that same unintentional, automatic manner in which the other steps of human progress have been secured: metaphysicians and divines having attacked one another from sheer self‐assertion, self‐interest and pugnacity, and a certain amount of error having luckily been torn down and trampled in these blind and undisciplined scuffles. But neither religion nor philosophy are really to thank for this incidental good result; and neither has shown any compunction for other incidental results of a less profitable kind, of which loss of time and littering the human mind with refuse are among the least.

I am aware that all the various exaggerations and errors compensate and neutralise one another in due course. But it seems an unwise arrangement that wisdom and virtue, of all things, should employ half of their day in clearing away the follies of previous page: 365 wisdom and virtue, and the other half in devising new follies of their own. In my marginal notes on Tolstoi I have adverted to the successive idol‐makings and idol‐burnings of which the history of thought chiefly consists. And in those on Nordau’s “Degeneracy” I have tried to show how alternations of being persecuted and persecuting explain the lapses and ravings of great men, without our needing to classify genius with epilepsy or to fall foul of the obscure ancestors of illustrious persons. And the dominant note of this volume of essays is the dreary sense that initiation into the wisdom of the sages and prophets should consist mainly in wading through the rubbish in which that wisdom lies overwhelmed; and in carrying, by a wearying effort, one’s willingness to learn and to respect through that pandemonium of self‐assertion and anathema.

And this is what I was thinking of when I began by saying that abstract thought and ideal emotions, while imagining themselves too good for practical application, have in reality not been honest, and disciplined and responsible and unselfish enough for use.


I can imagine a crass and worldly person remarking that where it is a question of daily bread, or of material convenience, progress, though slow (and Mr. Wells has told us how slow!), is not carried on exclusively upon these lines. And that the prevalence of such disorderly habits in certain departments of human activity page: 366 proves that those departments, to wit, philosophy, ethics and every kind of religion, are quite separate from the real life of mankind and have interest only for the persons who cultivate them in so eccentric and fruitless a fashion. M. Renan’s paternal criticism on the symbolist poets might be applied, alas, to the philosophers and moralists of whom he is himself the most sceptically amiable: “Ce sont des enfants qui s’amusent.” Sages and prophets and saints, whether masters or disciples, would thus seem to have been venting their surplus energy according to Mr. Herbert Spencer’s formula of the Play Instinct; and practical persons are aware that the play instinct leads, when to no worse, to sand castles, soap bubbles and mud pies. This is the tacit opinion of the immense majority of human beings; indeed, this judgment is so automatic and organic that it might startle most people to hear it put into words, and only a philosopher and moralist can waste breath in putting it! But looking facts in the face, this unspoken judgment of mankind is probably fairly correct. Philosophic speculation as distinguished from scientific, and ethical ideal as distinguished from superstitious regulations and practices, have, so far, had wonderfully little contact with the life of mankind; mankind has therefore not insisted on their being of a better quality; and not being of a better quality, &c., &c. ’Tis a vicious circle.

Here, being myself a philosopher and moralist, I can only, from the bottom of my heart, ejaculate “More’s the pity!” It is a pity that mankind should live from hand to mouth without any veritable page: 367 thinking of thoughts or feeling of emotions save those connected with keeping itself tolerably alive and leaving behind a fresh supply of tolerably or intolerably living creatures. It is a dull state of things, and dulness turns easily to stimulants, which do more harm than good. Thinking large thoughts, feeling wide and unselfish emotions, is pleasant; and it ought also to be useful. Mankind is none the better off in practical matters for its own selfishness and narrowness of mind. And (I do not think this can be a mere remnant of teleological superstition) if the play instinct of the race has expressed itself for æons in philosophy and religion, surely it must be that this play instinct (like that of kittens practising how to mouse, or little girls how to put dolls to bed) is the preparation for some useful employment. The time may come, who knows? when intellectual systems and ideal emotions be put to practical use; and then mankind will see to their being, what they have not often been, really usable.


Now when the Kingdom of Heaven shall be coming on Earth (and for those who believe in it the Kingdom of Heaven is always coming within their lifetime or their children’s!) one of the most unmistakable signs will be the gradual cessation of all self‐assertive ragings on the part of the Wise, and the gradual abatement of exaggerated claims and denunciations on the part of the Holy. Philosophers will begin page: 368 to think not in opposition but in co‐operation, even as the Lion, we are told, will on a similar occasion lie down with the Lamb; and moralists will be full of understanding and respect towards human nature. Prophesying, in the fashion in which Carlyle and Ruskin, Tolstoi and Nietzsche, have carried on that calling, will cease; and most particularly prophesying against other prophets. Idols will no longer be publicly burnt by their former worshippers; and idols will be made only for strictly private devotion. Moral and intellectual health will be sufficient for each to choose how much he can accept of each set of views; intolerance, exaggeration and aggressiveness will no longer be needed to awaken torpid, or keep up vacillating, interest; the consciousness of being able to do but little will be an incentive to do the most; faith will move molehills because it no longer expects to move mountains; and the avowal of such a thing as a will to believe (in the sense of Professor William James) will be recognised as the sign of incapacity for any real belief at all.

If this is the change which Mr. Wells expects the twentieth century to inaugurate, why then deliberative planning‐out of the Future, Constructive Socialism, and Voluntary Service (of a Samurai type) of Coming Generations, may presently begin to be realised. But the sign of the Coming of Utopia will be the purging and re‐tempering of philosophical thought and ethical emotion in the furnace of responsibility.

Is this change really about to set in, even if it take almost a geological era to bring to maturity? I am unable to form an opinion; for I belong, alas, page: 369 to the generation of the Unreclaimed. But, for anything I can tell, it may be beginning already, with the appearance (if they have appeared!) of a small number of individuals belonging to the practical classes, like Mr. Wells’s “skilled mechanic” and Mr. Shaw’s immortal chauffeur ’Ennery, who will bring into abstract and ideal matters, into philosophy and ethics, some of the modesty of expectation and of the disciplined delicacy of handling without which they could not have perfected a bicycle and driven a motor‐car.

Accustomed to do their best for the sake of the smallest advantage; accustomed to distrust equally themselves and their material, and to test skill by results; accustomed to work in concert with their mates and keep an eye on the improvements of their rivals; accustomed especially to the chances of success and failure, such people may bring into the things of the Spirit a habit of fair play and self‐criticism, of respect for achievement and contempt for perfunctoriness, a sense of responsibility born of dealing with things which have immediate and indisputable consequences, with simple and relentless facts which no definitions and no rhetoric can alter. It may be that this is the case. The integration of ideal thought and aspiration with practical life may be about to begin, may in fact be beginning; the anarchy of idea‐less and impractical ideals may be drawing to a close. And the future at our hand, or at least within our sight, may show some application of that capacity for systematic thinking and impersonal emotion which has hitherto seemed little more than page: 370 a play instinct of the leisured portions of mankind. It may be. At any rate, Mr. Wells has a right to expect it; and we have a right to expect it when we consider Mr. Wells.

For in all his scientific books, but most of all in this latest one on America, Mr. Wells has given us something more valuable than even the most valuable ideas, and something more novel than the newest ones; and that is an example of what the attitude of the individual thinker might and (in my opinion) should be. The thing seems so simple and natural, now it is there, that it is almost unnecessary, and at any rate difficult, to describe it. Mr. Wells is not merely truthful in what he says—many people, including some impostors, have been that: he is truthful in his way of saying it. He does not dogmatise and he does not prophesy; he just thinks his own thoughts and asks us to listen to what he thinks. He does not imagine that he is come with a hammer to break idols and adversaries’ skulls; nor pretend, to himself any more than to others, that he is come as the exponent of consecrated wisdom. He is neither the prophetic I, nor the sacerdotal We. He is just himself, believing in his own thoughts because they are his own, and ready to allow other folk to believe in theirs for the same simple reason. He knows that he is not the Mind of the Universe nor the Conscience of the Centuries, but an individual, like and unlike other individuals, liable to error, but all the more determined to be as little mistaken as may be; unable to attain certainty for himself, but all the more unable to accept it from any one else. page: 371 In fact he is, in his manner of feeling himself and of presenting himself to others, absolutely true to the reality of the case. Hence he is modest and self‐reliant. And above all, knowing that he cannot give as much as is needed, he is generous in giving all he has. It never enters his head to ask anyone to be his follower; he seems never to have heard of those sublime sibylline manners with which prophets threaten to tell you nothing if you are not willing to accept all. What he says is said because it interests himself, and in the wish that it may also interest you; but he recognises that he himself is the person most interested. Similarly, he is no more proud than he is ashamed, of being an individual: he recognises it as the common lot and the sine qua non of activity, though the origin of some drawbacks. He does his best because it is all he can do.

It may be that such is a common attitude among scientific workers; I am too ignorant of their ways to tell. What I do know is that it is not the attitude of philosophers and of moralists, of sages and prophets and priests. What it is, undoubtedly, is human or humane, in the sense of being rational and well‐bred; giving much, taking much, and not claiming more than one’s own standing‐room; moreover that it answers to the reality of things. Hence it is an attitude which will work in with reality’s action. What is more, I feel convinced that this is the attitude of the Future; the one which the Future will require, without any doubt; the one which the future will furnish, I most ardently hope. And in this hope of page: 372 the gradual coming of intellectual self‐restraint and goodwill, I am happy to take leave of the prophets and gospels of the anarchical past and anarchical present.

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