The Third
Great Booklet

Vexatious Readings
from
Various Minds

A Leaflet For The Masses

FROM THE UNDERGROUND TRACTARIAN SOCIETY

I AM glad to hear that you are employed in things good and new, in your music and drawing. You know what have been my fears for some time past--that you do not employ yourself so closely as I could wish. You have promised me a more assiduous attention, and I have great confidence in what you promise. It is your future happiness which interests me, and nothing can contribute more to it (moral rectitude always excepted) than the contracting a habit of industry and activity. Of all the cankers of human happiness none corrodes with so silent, yet so baneful a tooth, as indolence. Body and mind both unemployed, our being becomes a burthen, and every object about us loathsome, even the dearest. Idleness begets ennui, ennui the hypochondria, and that a diseased body. No laborious person was ever yet hysterical. Exercise and application produce order in our affairs, health of body, cheerfulness of mind, and these make us precious to our friends. It is while we are young that the habit of industry is formed. If not then, it never is afterwards. The fortune of our lives, therefore, depends on employing well the short period of youth. If at any moment, my dear, you catch yourself in idleness, start from it as you would from the precipice of a gulf. You are not, however, to consider yourself in idleness while taking exercise. That is necessary for your health, and health is the first of all objects. For this reason, if you leave your dancing-master for the summer, you must increase your other exercise.

I do not like your saying that you are unable to read the ancient print of your Livy, but with the aid of your master. We are always equal to what we undertake with resolution. A little degree of this will enable you to decipher your Livy. If you always lean on your master, you will never be able to proceed without him. It is part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate--to surmount every difficulty by resolution and contrivance. In Europe there are shops for every want: its inhabitants therefore have no idea that their wants can be furnished otherwise. Remote from all other aid, we are obliged to invent and to execute; to find means within ourselves, and not to lean on others. Consider, therefore, the conquering of your Livy as an exercise in the habit of surmounting difficulties; a habit which will be necessary to you in the country where you are to live, and without which you will be thought a very helpless animal, and less esteemed.

 

ANOTHER cause of mental disease is the exclusive exercise of the intellect or feelings. If the eye is taxed beyond its strength by protracted use, its blood-vessels become gorged, and the bloodshot appearance warns of the excess and the need of rest. The brain is affected in a similar manner by excessive use, though the suffering and inflamed organ can not make its appeal to the eye. But there are some indications which ought never to be misunderstood or disregarded. In cases of pupils at school or college, a diseased state, from over-action, is often manifested by increased clearness of mind, and temporary ease and vigor of mental action. In one instance, known to the writer, a most exemplary and industrious pupil, anxious to improve every hour and ignorant or unmindful of the laws of health, first manifested the diseased state of her brain and mind by demands for more studies, and a sudden and earnest activity in planning modes of improvement for herself and others. When warned of her danger, she protested that she never was better in her life; that she took regular exercise in the open air, went to bed in season, slept soundly, and felt perfectly well; that her mind was never before so bright and clear, and study never so easy and delightful. And, at this time, she was on the verge of derangement, from which she was saved only by an entire cessation of all intellectual efforts.

 

I HAVE wanted in late years to go further and further in making the metaphor the whole of thinking. I find someone now and then to agree with me that all thinking, except mathematical thinking, is metaphorical, or all thinking except scientific thinking. The mathematical might be difficult for me to bring in, but the scientific is easy enough.

What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don't know the metaphor in its strengths and its weakness. You don't know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.

All metaphor breaks down somewhere. That is the beauty of it. It is touch and go with the metaphor, and until you have lived with it long enough you don't know when it is going. You don't know how much you can get out of it and when it will cease to yield. It is a very living thing. It is as life itself.

We still ask boys in college to think, as in the nineties, but we seldom tell them what thinking means; we seldom tell them that it is just putting this and that together; it is just saying one thing in terms of another. To tell them is to set their feet on the first rung of a ladder the top of which sticks through the sky.

 

TRUTH is within ourselves; it takes no rise
from outward things, whate'er you may believe.

There is an inmost centre in us all,
where truth abides in fulness; and around,
wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in,
this perfect, clear perception--which is truth.

A baffling and perverted carnal mesh binds it,
and makes all error; and to know,
rather consists in opening out a way
whence the imprisoned splendor may escape,
than in effecting entry for a light
supposed to be without.

 

SEEING the wisdom of Socrates and several circumstances of his condemnation, I venture to believe that he lent himself to it to some extent, purposely, by prevarication, being seventy, and having so soon to suffer an increasing torpor of the rich activity of his mind, and the dimming of its accustomed brightness.

What metamorphoses I see old age producing in many of my acquaintances! It is a powerful malady, and it creeps in on us naturally and imperceptibly. We need a great provision of study, and great precautions, to avoid the imperfections it loads upon us, or at least to slow up their progress. I feel that, notwithstanding all my retrenchments, it gains on me foot by foot. I stand fast as well as I can. But I do not know where it will lead even me in the end.

 

WHEN all these conquests had been added to the Lydian empire, and the prosperity of Sardis was now at its height, there came thither, one after another, all the sages of Greece living at the time, and among them Solon, the Athenian. He was on his travels, having left Athens to be absent ten years, under the pretense of wishing to see the world, but really to avoid being forced to repeal any of the laws which, at the request of the Athenians, he had made for them. Without his sanction the Athenians could not repeal them, as they had bound themselves under a heavy curse to be governed for ten years by the laws which should be imposed on them by Solon.

On this account, as well as to see the world, Solon set out upon his travels, in the course of which he went to Egypt to the court of Amasis, and also came on a visit to Croesus at Sardis. Croesus received him as his guest, and lodged him in the royal palace. On the third or fourth day after, he bade his servants conduct Solon over his treasuries, and show him all their greatness and magnificence. When he had seen them all, and, so far as time allowed, inspected them, Croesus addressed this question to him.

"Stranger of Athens, we have heard much of thy wisdom and of thy travels through many lands, from love of knowledge and a wish to see the world. I am curious therefore to inquire of thee, whom, of all the men that thou hast seen, thou deemest the most happy?"

This he asked because he thought himself the happiest of mortals: but Solon answered him without flattery, according to his true sentiments, "Tellus of Athens, sire."

Full of astonishment at what he heard, Croesus demanded sharply, "And wherefore dost thou deem Tellus happiest?"

To which the other replied, "First, because his country was flourishing in his days, and he himself had sons both beautiful and good, and he lived to see children born to each of them, and these children all grew up; and further because, after a life spent in what our people look upon as comfort, his end was surpassingly glorious. In a battle between the Athenians and their neighbors near Eleusis, he came to the assistance of his countrymen, routed the foe, and died upon the field most gallantly. The Athenians gave him a public funeral on the spot where he fell, and paid him the highest honors."

Thus did Solon admonish Croesus by the example of Tellus, enumerating the manifold particulars of his happiness. When he had ended, Croesus inquired a second time, who after Tellus seemed to him to be the happiest, expecting that at any rate, he would be given the second place.

"Cleobis and Bito," Solon answered. "They were of the Argive race; their fortune was enough for their wants, and they were besides endowed with so much bodily strength that they both gained prizes at the Games. Also this tale is told of them:--There was a great festival in honor of the goddess Juno at Argos, to which their mother must needs be taken in wagon. Now the oxen did not come home from the field in time: so the youths, fearful of being too late, put the yoke on their own necks, and themselves drew the wagon in which their mother rode. Five and forty furlongs did they draw her, and stopped before the temple. This deed of theirs was witnessed by the whole assembly of worshippers, and then their lives closed in the best possible way. Herein, too, God showed forth most evidently, how much better a thing death is for man than life. For the Argive men, who stood around the wagon, extolled the vast strength of the youths; and the Argive women extolled the mother, who was blessed with such a pair of sons; and the mother herself, overjoyed at the deed and at the praises it had won, standing straight before the image, besought the goddess to bestow on Cleobis and Bito, the sons who had so mightily honored her, the highest blessing to which mortals can attain. Her prayer ended, they offered sacrifice and partook of the holy banquet, after which the two youths fell asleep in the temple. They never woke more, but so passed from the earth. The Argives, looking on them as among the best of men, caused statues of them to be made, which they gave to the shrine at Delphi."

 

THE world of evil is so far beyond our understanding! Nor can I really succeed in picturing Hell as a world, a universe. It is nothing, never will be anything but a half-formed shape, the hideous shape of an abortion, a stunted thing on the very verge of all existence. I think of sullied, translucent patches on the sea. Does the Monster care that there should be one criminal more or less? Immediately he sucks down the crime into himself, makes it one with his own horrible substance, digests without once arousing from his terrifying eternal lethargy. Yet historians, moralists, even philosophers refuse to see anything but the criminal, they re-create evil in the image and likeness of humanity. They form no idea of essential evil, that vast yearning for the void, for emptiness; since if ever our species is to perish it will die of boredom, of stale disgust. Humanity will have been slowly eaten up as a beam by invisible fungi, which transform in a few weeks a block of oakwood into spongy matter which our fingers have no difficulty in breaking. And the moralist will dissertate on passions, the statesman redouble his police, the educationalist draw up new courses of study--treasures will be squandered wholesale for the useless moulding of a dough which contains no leaven.

(As for instance the world wars of today which would seem to show such prodigious human activity, are in fact indictments of the growing apathy of humanity. In the end, at certain stated periods, they will lead huge flocks of resigned sheep to be slaughtered.)

We are told that the earth is still quite young, after thousands of centuries, still as it were in the pristine stages of it planetary evolution. Evil too is only at its beginning.

"Are you, then," he said, "no longer a democracy in England?"

Barker laughed.

"The situation invites paradox," he said. "We are, in a sense, the purest democracy. We have become a despotism. Have you not noticed how continually in history democracy becomes despotism? People call it the decay of democracy. It is simply its fulfillment. Why take the trouble to number and register and enfranchise all the innumerable Jack Robinsons, when you can take one Jack Robinson with the same intellect or lack of intellect as all the rest, and have done with it? The old idealistic republicans used to found democracy on the idea that all men were equally intelligent. Believe me, the sane and enduring democracy is founded on the fact that all men are equally idiotic. Why should we not choose out one of them as much as another? All that we want for government is a man not criminal and insane, who can rapidly look over some petitions and sign some proclamations. To think what time was wasted in arguing about the House of Lords, Tories saying that it ought to be preserved because it was clever, and Radicals saying it ought to be destroyed because it was stupid, and all the time no one saw that it was right because it was stupid, because the chance mob of ordinary men thrown there by accident of blood, were a great democratic protest against the Lower House, against the eternal insolence of the aristocracy of talents. We have established now in England, the thing towards which all systems have dimly groped, the dull popular despotism without illusions. We want one man at the head of our State, not because he is brilliant or virtuous, but because he is one man and not a chattering crowd. To avoid the possible chance of hereditary diseases or such things, we have abandoned hereditary monarchy. The King of England is chosen like a juryman upon an official rotation list. Beyond that the whole system is quietly despotic, and we have not found it raise a murmur."

"Do you really mean," asked the President, incredulously, "that you choose any ordinary man and make him despot--that you trust to the chance of some alphabetical list?"

"And why not?" cried Barker. "Did not half the historical nations trust to the chance of the eldest sons of eldest sons, and did not half of them get on tolerably well? To have a perfect system is impossible; to have a system is indispensable. All hereditary monarchies were a matter of luck: so are alphabetic monarchies. Can you find a deep philosophical meaning in the difference between Stuarts and the Hanoverians? Believe me, I will undertake to find a deep philosophical meaning in the contrast between the dark tragedy of the A's, and the solid success of the B's."

"And you risk it?" asked the other. "Though the man may be a tyrant or a cynic or a criminal?"

"We risk it," answered Barker, with a perfect placidity. "Suppose he is a tyrant--he is still a check on a hundred tyrants. Suppose he is a cynic--it is to his interest to govern well. Suppose he is a criminal--by removing poverty and substituting power, we put a check on his criminality. In short, by substituting despotisms we have put a total check on one criminal and a partial check on all the rest."

The Nicaraguan old gentleman leaned over with a queer expression in his eyes. "My church, sir," he said, "has taught me to respect faith. I do not wish to speak with disrespect of yours, however fantastic. But do you really mean that you will trust to the ordinary man, the man who may happen to come next, as a good despot? "

I do," said Barker simply. "He may not be a good man. But he will be a good despot. For when he comes to a mere business routine of government he will endeavour to do ordinary justice. Do we not assume the same thing in a jury?"

The old President smiled.

"I don't know," he said, "that I have any particular objection in detail to your excellent scheme of Government. My only objection is a quite personal one. It is, that if I were asked whether I would belong to it, I should ask first of all, if I was not permitted, as an alternative, to be a toad in a ditch. That is all. You cannot argue with the choice of the soul."

 

MEN seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, seashores, and mountains; and you too are wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the common sort of man, for it is in your power, whenever you shall choose, to retire into yourself. For nowhere with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within himself such thoughts that by looking into them he is at once perfectly tranquil; and this tranquility, I am sure, is nothing but the good ordering of the mind. Constantly then grant yourself this retreat and refreshment; let your principles be brief and fundamental, which, as soon as you shall call them to mind, will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and send you back free from all discontent with the stale things to which you return.

 

Style cannot go beyond the ideas which lie at the heart of it. If they are clear, it too will be c1ear. If they are held passionately, it will be eloquent. Trying to teach it to persons who cannot think, especially when attempted by persons who cannot think, is a great waste of time.

It would be far more logical to devote all the energy to teaching, not writing, but logic. For I doubt that the art of thinking can be taught at all--at any rate, by school teachers. It is not acquired but congenital. Some persons are born with it. Their ideas flow in straight channels; they are capable of lucid reasoning; when they write anything it is clear and persuasive. They constitute, I should say, about one-eighth of one percent of the human race.

 

THE queerest thing about his teaching is that we do not know exactly what he taught. We know how he taught. We know that very well. But we do not know precisely what lessons his pupils and interlocutors drew from his questioning. His different pupils say he taught different things. Young Xenophon knew him before going out East to become a soldier of fortune, and wrote memoirs of him later. He shows Socrates as an inquisitive, pawky, charming but annoying eccentric, who inquired into everything and criticized everything more or less indiscriminately. Another of his pupils, Aristippus, thought he destroyed all moral traditions and all permanent spiritual values by his criticism and encouraged men to live a life without conventions, following only pleasure and the instincts. Plato himself began by writing conversations in which Socrates proved nothing except that no one knows anything; or, at most, that virtue must be knowledge. Then, he went on to conversations where Socrates, after breaking down traditional theories, proceeded to build up elaborate theories of his own--still working on the question-and-answer principle, but reducing the other man to a mere stooge saying "Yes" and "No" and "Go on." Some of these theories are called Plato's by later writers. Were they Plato's, or did Socrates teach them?

Evidently the answer is "both." Socrates did not teach them in their fully explicit form, or his other pupils would have remembered them also. But Plato did not work them out entirely on his own. They were produced by the action of Socrates' teaching upon his mind. Also, we must remember that anyone who taught so well as Socrates and who used cross-examination as his method cannot have thrown out questions at random. He must have had some set of positive beliefs from which his questions flowed; and even if he did not explain them positively, his more brilliant pupils could reconstruct them. His teaching therefore is one of the great examples of the power of implication. What a teacher says outright sometimes goes unheard. What he stimulates his pupils to think out for themselves often has a far more potent influence upon them.

 

SOCRATES had refused to compromise his personal integrity. Plato, with all his uncompromising canvas-cleaning, was led along a path on which he compromised his integrity with every stop that he took. He was forced to combat free thought, and the pursuit of truth. He was led to defend lying, political miracles, tabooistic superstition, the suppression of truth, and ultimately, brutal violence. In spite of Socrates' warning against misanthropy and misology, he was led to distrust man and to fear argument. In spite of his own hatred of tyranny, he was led to look to a tyrant for help, and to defend the most tyrannical measures. By the internal logic of his anti-humanitarian aim, the internal logic of power, he was led unaware to the same point to which once the Thirty had been led, and at which, later, his friend Dio arrived, and others among his numerous tyrant-disciples. He did not succeed in arresting social change. Instead, he succeeded in binding himself by his own spell, to powers which once he had hated.

The lesson which we should learn from Plato is the exact opposite of what he tries to teach us. It is a lesson which must not be forgotten. Excellent as Plato's sociological diagnosis was, his own development proves that the therapy he recommended is worse than the evil he tried to combat. Arresting political change is not the remedy; it cannot bring happiness. We can never return to the alleged innocence and beauty of the closed society. Our dream of heaven cannot be realized on earth. Once we begin to rely upon our reason, and to use our powers of criticism, once we feel that call of personal responsibilities, and with it the responsibility of helping to advance knowledge, we cannot return to a state of implicit submission to tribal magic. For those who have eaten of the tree of knowledge, paradise is lost. The more we try to return to the heroic age of tribalism, the more surely do we arrive at the Inquisition, at the Secret Police, and at a romanticized gangsterism. Beginning with the suppression of reason and truth, we must end with the most brutal and violent destruction of all that is human. There is no return to a harmonious state of nature. If we turn back, then we must go the whole way--we must return to the beasts.

It is an issue which we must face squarely, hard though it may be for us to do so. If we dream of a return to our childhood, if we are tempted to rely on others and so be happy, if we shrink from the task of carrying our cross, the cross of humaneness, of reason, of responsibility, if we lose courage and flinch from the strain, then we must try to fortify ourselves with a clear understanding of the decision before us. We can return to the beasts. But if we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society. We must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure, using what reason we have to plan as well as we can for both, security and freedom.


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