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February 18th, 2008

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July 23rd, 2006

02:39 pm - An Introduction to Æsop’s Fables (1912)

Æsop embodies an epigram not uncommon in human history; his fame is all the more deserved because he never deserved it. The firm foundations of common sense, the shrewd shots at uncommon sense, that characterise all the Fables, belong not to him, but to humanity.

In the earliest human history, whatever is authentic is universal: and whatever is universal is anonymous. In such cases, there is always some central man who had first the trouble of collecting them, and afterwards the fame of creating them.

He had the fame; and, on the whole, he earned the fame. There must have been something great and human, something of the human future and the human past, in such a man: even if he only used it to rob the past or deceive the future.

The story of Arthur may have been really connected with the most fighting Christianity of falling Rome or with the most heathen traditions hidden in the hills of Wales. But the word “Mappe” or “Malory” will always mean King Arthur; even though we find older and better origins than the Mabinogian; or write later and worse versions than the “Idylls of the King.”

The nursery fairy tales may have come out of Asia with the Indo-European race, now fortunately extinct; they may have been invented by some fine French lady or gentleman like Perrault: they may possibly even be what they profess to be. But we shall always call the best selection of such tales “Grimm’s Tales”: simply because it is the best collection.

The historical Æsop, in so far as he was historical, would seem to have been a Phrygian slave, or at least one not to be specially and symbolically adorned with the Phrygian cap of liberty. He lived, if he did live, about the sixth century before Christ, in the time of that Croesus whose story we love and suspect like everything else in Herodotus.

There are also stories of deformity of feature and a ready ribaldry of tongue: stories which (as the celebrated Cardinal said) explain, though they do not excuse, his having been hurled over a high precipice at Delphi. It is for those who read the Fables to judge whether he was really thrown over the cliff for being ugly and offensive, or rather for being highly moral and correct.

But there is no kind of doubt that the general legend of him may justly rank him with a race too easily forgotten in our modern comparisons: the race of the great philosophic slaves.

Æsop may have been a fiction like Uncle Remus: he was also, like Uncle Remus, a fact. It is a fact that slaves in the old world could be worshipped like Æsop, or loved like Uncle Remus. It is odd to note that both the great slaves told their best stories about beasts and birds.

But whatever be fairly due to Æsop, the human tradition called Fables is not due to him. This had gone on long before any sarcastic freedman from Phrygia had or had not been flung off a precipice; this has remained long after.

It is to our advantage, indeed, to realise the distinction; because it makes Æsop more obviously effective than any other fabulist. Grimm’s Tales, glorious as they are, were collected by two German students. And if we find it hard to be certain of a German student, at least we know more about him than we know about a Phrygian slave.

The truth is, of course, that Æsop’s Fables are not Æsop’s fables, any more than Grimm’s Fairy Tales were ever Grimm’s fairy tales. But the fable and the fairy tale are things utterly distinct. There are many elements of difference; but the plainest is plain enough. There can be no good fable with human beings in it. There can be no good fairy tale without them.

Æsop, or Babrius (or whatever his name was), understood that, for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked. The sheep in a fable must march on, as the pawn in chess must march on. The fable must not allow for the crooked captures of the pawn; it must not allow for what Balzac called “the revolt of a sheep.”

The fairy tale, on the other hand, absolutely revolves on the pivot of human personality. If no hero were there to fight the dragons, we should not even know that they were dragons. If no adventurer were cast on the undiscovered island, it would remain undiscovered. If the miller’s third son does not find the enchanted garden where the seven princesses stand white and frozen — why, then, they will remain white and frozen and enchanted. If there is no personal prince to find the Sleeping Beauty, she will simply sleep.

Fables repose upon quite the opposite idea; that everything is itself, and will in any case speak for itself. The wolf will be always wolfish; the fox will be always foxy.

Something of the same sort may have been meant by the animal worship, in which Egyptian and Indian and many other great peoples have combined. Men do not, I think, love beetles or cats or crocodiles with a wholly personal love; they salute them as expressions of that abstract and anonymous energy in nature which to any one is awful, and to an atheist must be frightful.

So in all the fables that are or are not Æsop’s, all the animal forces drive like inanimate forces, like great rivers or growing trees. It is the limit and the loss of all such things that they cannot be anything but themselves: it is their tragedy that they could not lose their souls.

This is the immortal justification of the Fable: that we could not teach the plainest truths so simply without turning men into chessmen. We cannot talk of such simple things without using animals that do not talk at all.

Suppose, for a moment, that you turn the wolf into a wolfish baron, or the fox into a foxy diplomatist. You will at once remember that even barons are human, you will be unable to forget that even diplomatists are men. You will always be looking for that accidental good-humour that should go with the brutality of any brutal man; for that allowance for all delicate things, including virtue, that should exist in any good diplomatist.

Once put a thing on two legs instead of four and pluck it of feathers, and you cannot help asking for a human being, either heroic, as in the fairy tales, or un-heroic, as in the modern novels.

But by using animals in this austere and arbitrary style as they are used on the shields of heraldry or the hieroglyphics of the ancients, men have really succeeded in handing down those tremendous truths that are called truisms. If the chivalric lion be red and rampant, it is rigidly red and rampant; if the sacred ibis stands anywhere on one leg, it stands on one leg for ever.

In this language, like a large animal alphabet, are written some of the first philosophic certainties of men. As the child learns A for Ass or B for Bull or C for Cow, so man has learnt here to connect the simpler and stronger creatures with the simpler and stronger truths:

  • that a flowing stream cannot befoul its own fountain, and that any one who says it does is a tyrant and a liar;
  • that a mouse is too weak to fight a lion, but too strong for the cords that can hold a lion;
  • that a fox who gets most out of a flat dish may easily get least out of a deep dish;
  • that the crow whom the gods forbid to sing, the gods nevertheless provide with cheese;
  • that when the goat insults from a mountain-top it is not the goat that insults, but the mountain.

All these are deep truths deeply graven on the rocks wherever men have passed. It matters nothing how old they are, or how new; they are the alphabet of humanity, which like so many forms of primitive picture-writing employs any living symbol in preference to man.

These ancient and universal tales are all of animals; as the latest discoveries in the oldest pre-historic caverns are all of animals. Man, in his simpler states, always felt that he himself was something too mysterious to be drawn.

But the legend he carved under these cruder symbols was everywhere the same; and whether fables began with Æsop or began with Adam, whether they were German and mediaeval as Reynard the Fox, or as French and Renaissance as La Fontaine, the upshot is everywhere essentially the same: that superiority is always insolent, because it is always accidental; that pride goes before a fall; and that there is such a thing as being too clever by half.

You will not find any other legend but this written upon the rocks by any hand of man. There is every type and time of fable: but there is only one moral to the fable; because there is only one moral to everything.

(Reformatted from this online version.)

(What do you think?)

09:43 am - On Evil Euphemisms (1930)

Somebody has sent me a book on Companionate Marriage; so called because the people involved are not married, and will very rapidly cease to be companions. I have no intention of discussing here that somewhat crude colonial project. I will merely say that it is here accompanied with sub-titles and other statements about the rising generation and the revolt of youth.

And it seems to me exceedingly funny that, just when the rising generation boasts of not being sentimental, when it talks of being very scientific and sociological — at that very moment, everybody seems to have forgotten altogether what was the social use of marriage, and to be thinking wholly and solely of the sentimental.

The practical purposes mentioned as the first two reasons for marriage (in the Anglican marriage service) seem to have gone completely out of sight for some people, who talk as if there were nothing but a rather wild version of the third, which may relatively be called romantic.

And this, if you please, is supposed to be an emancipation from Victorian sentiment and romance.

But I only mention this matter as one of many, and one which illustrates a still more curious contradiction in this modern claim. We are perpetually being told that this rising generation is very frank and free, and that its whole social ideal is frankness and freedom. Now I am not at all afraid of frankness. What I am afraid of is fickleness. And there is a truth in the old proverbial connection between what is fickle and what is false.

There is, in the very titles and terminology of all this sort of thing, a pervading element of falsehood. Everything is to be called something that it is not; as in the characteristic example of Companionate Marriage. Everything is to be recommended to the public by some sort of synonym which is really a pseudonym. It is a talent that goes with the time of electioneering and advertisement and newspaper headlines; but whatever else such a time may be, it certainly is not specially a time of truth.

In short, these friends of frankness depend almost entirely on Euphemism. They introduce their horrible heresies under new and carefully complimentary names; as the Furies were called the Eumenides. The names are always flattery; the names are also nonsense.

The name of Birth-Control, for instance, is sheer nonsense. Everybody has always exercised birth-control; even when they were so paradoxical as to permit the process to end in a birth. Everybody has always known about birth-control, even if it took the wild and unthinkable form of self-control. The question at issue concerns different forms of birth-prevention; and I am not going to debate it here. But if I did debate it, I would call it by its name.

The same is true of an older piece of sentiment indulged in by the frank and free: the expression “Free Love.” That also is a Euphemism; that is, it is a refusal of people to say what they mean. In that sense, it is impossible to prevent love being free, but the moral problem challenged concerns not the passions, but the will.

There are a great many other examples of this sort of polite fiction; these respectable disguises adopted by those who are always railing against respectability. In the immediate future there will probably be more still. There really seems no necessary limit to the process; and however far the anarchy of ethics may go, it may always be accompanied with this curious and pompous ceremonial.

The sensitive youth of the future will never be called upon to accept Forgery as Forgery. It will be easy enough to call it Homoeography, or Script-Assimilation, or something else that would suggest, to the simple or the superficial, that nothing was involved but a sort of socializing or unification of individual handwriting.

We should not, like the more honest Mr. Fagin, teach little boys to pick pockets; for Mr. Fagin becomes far less honest when he becomes Professor Faginski, the great sociologist, of the University of Jena. But we should call it by some name implying the transference of something. (I cannot at the moment remember the Greek either for pocket or pocket-handkerchief.)

As for the social justification of murder, that has already begun; and earnest thinkers had better begin at once to think about a nice inoffensive name for it. The case for murder, on modern relative and evolutionary ethics, is quite overwhelming. There is hardly one of us who does not, in looking round his or her social circle, recognize some chatty person or energetic social character whose disappearance, without undue fuss or farewell, would be a bright event for us all.

Nor is it true that such a person is dangerous only because he wields unjust legal or social powers. The problem is often purely psychological, and not in the least legal; and no legal emancipations would solve it. Nothing would solve it but the introduction of that new form of liberty which we may agree to call, perhaps, the practice of Social Subtraction.

Or, if we like, we can model the new name on the other names I have mentioned. We may call it Life-Control, or Free Death; or anything else that has as little to do with the point of it as Companionate Marriage has to do with either marriage or companionship.

Anyhow, I respectfully refuse to be impressed by the claim to candour and realism put forward just now for men, women, and movements. It seems to me obvious that this is not really the age of audacity, but merely of advertisement; which may rather be described as caution kicking up a fuss.

Much of the mistake arises from the double sense of the word publicity. For publicity also is a thoroughly typical euphemism or evasive term. Publicity does not mean revealing public life in the interests of public spirit. It means merely flattering private enterprises in the interests of private persons. It means paying compliments in public; but not offering criticisms in public.

We should all be very much surprised if we walked out of the front door one morning and saw a hoarding on one side of the road saying: “Use Miggle’s Milk; It Is All Cream,” and a hoarding on the other side of the road inscribed: “Don’t Use Miggle’s Milk; It’s Nearly All Water.” The modern world would be much upset if I were allowed to set up a flaming sky-sign proclaiming my precise opinion of the Colonial Port Wine praised in the flaming sign opposite.

All this advertisement may have something to do with the freedom of trade; but it has nothing to with the freedom of truth. Publicity must be praise, and praise must to some extent be euphemism. It must put the matter in a milder and more inoffensive form that it might be put, however much that mildness may seem to shout through megaphones or flare in headlines.

And just as this sort of loud evasion is used in favour of bad wine and bad milk, so it is used in favour of bad morals. When somebody wishes to wage a social war against what all normal people have regarded as a social decency, the very first thing he does is to find some artificial term that shall sound relatively decent.

He has no more of the real courage that would pit vice against virtue than the ordinary advertiser has the courage to advertise ale as arsenic. His intelligence, such as it is, is entirely a commercial intelligence, and to that extent entirely conventional. He is a shop-keeper who dresses the shop-window; he is certainly the very reverse of a rebel or a rioter who breaks the shop-window.

If only for this reason, I remain cold and decline the due reverence to Companionate Marriage and the book which speaks so reverentially about the Revolt of Youth. For this sort of revolt strikes me as nothing except revolting; and certainly not particularly realistic.

With the passions which are natural to youth we all sympathize; with the pain that often arises from loyalty and duty we all sympathize still more; but nobody need sympathize with publicity experts picking pleasant expressions for unpleasant things; and I for one prefer the coarse language of our fathers.

(Reformatted from this online version.)

(What do you think?)

08:47 am - The Revival of Philosophy – Why? (1930)

The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that, unless a man has a philosophy, certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust in evolution; he will do the work that lies nearest; he will devote himself to deeds, not words.

Thus struck down by blow after blow of blind stupidity and random fate, he will stagger on to a miserable death with no comfort but a series of catchwords; such as those which I have catalogued above. Those things are simply substitutes for thoughts. In some cases, they are the tags and tail-ends of somebody else’s thinking.

That means that a man who refuses to have his own philosophy will not even have the advantages of a brute beast, and be left to his own instincts. He will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy; which the beasts do not have to inherit; hence their happiness.

Men have always one of two things: either a complete and conscious philosophy, or the unconscious acceptance of the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy. Such broken bits are the phrases I have quoted: efficiency and evolution and the rest.

The idea of being “practical”, standing all by itself, is all that remains of a Pragmatism that cannot stand at all. It is impossible to be practical without a Pragma. And what would happen if you went up to the next practical man you met and said to the poor dear old duffer, “Where is your Pragma?”

Doing the work that is nearest is obvious nonsense; yet it has been repeated in many albums. In nine cases out of ten it would mean doing the work that we are least fitted to do, such as cleaning the windows or clouting the policeman over the head.

“Deeds, not words” is itself an excellent example of “words, not thoughts”. It is a deed to throw a pebble into a pond and a word that sends a prisoner to the gallows. But there are certainly very futile words; and this sort of journalistic philosophy and popular science almost entirely consists of them.

Some people fear that philosophy will bore or bewilder them; because they think it is not only a string of long words, but a tangle of complicated notions. These people miss the whole point of the modern situation. These are exactly the evils that exist already; mostly for want of a philosophy.

The politicians and the papers are always using long words. It is not a complete consolation that they use them wrong. The political and social relations are already hopelessly complicated. They are far more complicated than any page of medieval metaphysics; the only difference is that the medievalist could trace out the tangle and follow the complications; and the moderns cannot.

The chief practical things of today, like finance and political corruption, are frightfully complicated. We are content to tolerate them because we are content to misunderstand them, not to understand them. The business world needs metaphysics — to simplify it.

I know these words will be received with scorn, and with gruff reassertion that this is no time for nonsense and paradox; and that what is really wanted is a practical man to go in and clear up the mess.

And a practical man will doubtless appear, one of the unending succession of practical men; and he will doubtless go in, and perhaps clear up a few millions for himself, and leave the mess more bewildering than before; as each of the other practical men has done.

The reason is perfectly simple. This sort of rather crude and unconscious person always adds to the confusion; because he himself has two or three different motives at the same moment, and does not distinguish between them. A man has, already entangled hopelessly in his own mind,

  1. a hearty and human desire for money,
  2. a somewhat priggish and superficial desire to be progressing, or going the way the world is going,
  3. a dislike to being thought too old to keep up with the young people,
  4. a certain amount of vague but genuine patriotism or public spirit,
  5. a misunderstanding of a mistake made by Mr. H. G. Wells, in the form of a book on Evolution.

When a man has all these things in his head, and does not even attempt to sort them out, he is called by common consent and acclamation a practical man. But the practical man cannot be expected to improve the impracticable muddle; for he cannot clear up the muddle in his own mind, let alone in his own highly complex community and civilisation.

For some strange reason, it is the custom to say of this sort of practical man that “he knows his own mind”. Of course, this is exactly what he does not know. He may in a few fortunate cases know what he wants, as does a dog or a baby of two years old; but even then, he does not know why he wants it.

And it is the why and the how that have to be considered when we are tracing out the way in which some culture or tradition has got into a tangle. What we need, as the ancients understood, is not a politician who is a business man, but a king who is a philosopher.

I apologise for the word “king”, which is not strictly necessary to the sense; but I suggest that it would be one of the functions of the philosopher to pause upon such words, and determine their importance and unimportance.

The Roman Republic and all its citizens had to the last a horror of the word “king”; it was in consequence of this that they invented and imposed on us the word “Emperor”. The great Republicans who founded America also had a horror of the word “king”; which has therefore reappeared with the special qualification of a Steel King, an Oil King, a Pork King, or other similar monarchs made of similar materials.

The business of the philosopher is not necessarily to condemn the innovation or to deny the distinction. But it is his duty to ask himself exactly what it is that he or others dislike in the word “king”.

If what he dislikes is a man wearing the spotted fur of a small animal called the ermine, or a man having once had a metal ring placed on the top of his head by a clergyman, he will decide one way. If what he dislikes is a man having vast or irresponsible powers over other men, he may decide another. If what he dislikes is such fur or such power being handed on from father to son, he will enquire whether this ever occurs under commercial conditions today.

But, anyhow, he will have the habit of testing the thing by the thought; by the idea which he likes or dislikes; and not merely by the sound of a syllable, or the look of four letters beginning with a “K”.

Philosophy is merely thought that has been thought out. It is often a great bore. But man has no alternative, except between being influenced by thought that has been thought out, and being influenced by thought that has not been thought out. The latter is what we commonly call culture and enlightenment today.

But man is always influenced by thought of some kind, his own or somebody else’s; that of somebody he trusts, or that of somebody he never heard of; thought at first, second or third hand; thought from exploded legends or unverified rumours; but always something with the shadow of a system of values and a reason for preference. A man does test everything by something. The question here is whether he has ever tested the test.

I will take one example out of a thousand that might be taken. What is the attitude of an ordinary man on being told of an extraordinary event: a miracle? I mean the sort of thing that is loosely called supernatural, but should more properly be called preternatural. For the word supernatural applies only to what is higher than man; and a good many modern miracles look as if they came from what is considerably lower.

Anyhow, what do modern men say when apparently confronted with something that cannot, in the cant phrase, be naturally explained? Well, most modern men immediately talk nonsense. When such a thing is currently mentioned, in novels or newspapers or magazine stories, the first comment is always something like, “But my dear fellow, this is the twentieth century!”

It is worth having a little training in philosophy, if only to avoid looking so ghastly a fool as that. It has, on the whole, rather less sense or meaning than saying, “But my dear fellow, this is Tuesday afternoon!”

If miracles cannot happen, they cannot happen in the twentieth century or in the twelfth. If they can happen, nobody can prove that there is a time when they cannot happen.

The best that can be said for the skeptic is that he cannot say what he means, and therefore, whatever else he means, he cannot mean what he says. But if he only means that miracles can be believed in the twelfth century, but cannot be believed in the twentieth, then he is wrong again, both in theory and in fact.

He is wrong in theory, because an intelligent recognition of possibilities does not depend on a date, but on a philosophy. An atheist could disbelieve in the first century, and a mystic could continue to believe in the twenty-first century.

And he is wrong in fact, because there is every sign of there being a great deal of mysticism and miracle in the twenty-first century; and there is quite certainly an increasing mass of it in the twentieth.

But I have only taken that first superficial repartee because there is a significance in the mere fact that it comes first; and its very superficiality reveals something of the subconsciousness. It is almost an automatic repartee; and automatic words are of some importance in psychology.

Let us not be too severe on the worthy gentleman who informs his dear fellow that it is the twentieth century. In the mysterious depths of his being, even that enormous ass does actually mean something. The point is that he cannot really explain what he means; and that is the argument for a better education in philosophy.

What he really means is something like this:

“There is a theory of this mysterious universe to which more and more people were in fact inclined during the second half of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries; and up to that point at least, this theory did grow with the growing inventions and discoveries of science to which we owe our present social organisation — or disorganisation.

“That theory maintains that cause and effect have from the first operated in an uninterrupted sequence like a fixed fate; and that there is no will behind or within that fate; so that it must work itself out in the absence of such a will, as a machine must run down in the absence of a man.

“There were more people in the nineteenth century than in the ninth who happened to hold this particular theory of the universe. I myself happened to hold it; and therefore I obviously cannot believe in miracles.”

That is perfectly good sense; but so is the counter-statement: “I do not happen to hold it; and therefore I obviously can believe in miracles.”

The advantage of an elementary philosophic habit is that it permits a man, for instance, to understand a statement like this, “Whether there can or can not be exceptions to a process depends on the nature of that process.”

The disadvantage of not having it is that a man will turn impatiently even from so simple a truism; and call it metaphysical gibberish. He will then go off and say: “One can’t have such things in the twentieth century”; which really is gibberish. Yet the former statement could surely be explained to him in sufficiently simple terms.

If a man sees a river run downhill day after day and year after year, he is justified in reckoning, we might say in betting, that it will do so till he dies. But he is not justified in saying that it cannot run uphill, until he really knows why it runs downhill. To say it does so by gravitation answers the physical but not the philosophical question. It only repeats that there is a repetition; it does not touch the deeper question of whether that repetition could be altered by anything outside it. And that depends on whether there is anything outside it.

For instance, suppose that a man had only seen the river in a dream. He might have seen it in a hundred dreams, always repeating itself and always running downhill. But that would not prevent the hundredth dream being different and the river climbing the mountain; because the dream is a dream, and there is something outside it.

Mere repetition does not prove reality or inevitability. We must know the nature of the thing and the cause of the repetition. If the nature of the thing is a Creation, and the cause of the thing a Creator — in other words, if the repetition itself is only the repetition of something willed by a person — then it is not impossible for the same person to will a different thing.

If a man is a fool for believing in a Creator, then he is a fool for believing in a miracle; but not otherwise. Otherwise, he is simply a philosopher who is consistent in his philosophy.

A modern man is quite free to choose either philosophy. But what is actually the matter with the modern man is that he does not know even his own philosophy; but only his own phraseology. He can only answer the next spiritual message produced by a spiritualist, or the next cure attested by doctors at Lourdes, by repeating what are generally nothing but phrases; or are, at their best, prejudices.

Thus, when so brilliant a man as Mr. H. G. Wells says that such supernatural ideas have become impossible “for intelligent people”, he is (for that instant) not talking like an intelligent person. In other words, he is not talking like a philosopher; because he is not even saying what he means. What he means is, not “impossible for intelligent men”, but, “impossible for intelligent monists”, or, “impossible for intelligent determinists”.

But it is not a negation of intelligence to hold any coherent and logical conception of so mysterious a world. It is not a negation of intelligence to think that all experience is a dream. It is not unintelligent to think it a delusion, as some Buddhists do; let alone to think it a product of creative will, as Christians do.

We are always being told that men must no longer be so sharply divided into their different religions. As an immediate step in progress, it is much more urgent that they should be more clearly and more sharply divided into their different philosophies.

(Reformatted, with minor corrections, from this online version.)

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