Wednesday, October 15, 2014


George Bernard Shaw was considered one of the great intellectuals of his day, and widely quoted.  His plays are not much produced, nor his books much read these days, but he is certainly not obscure or unremembered. In my generation he was still regarded as a great lion of 20th C thought, and as my generation is still teaching, he is still on the syllabus.  He was known as a socialist, a vegetarian, and great progressive, so that will keep him going longer.  Yet I sense the end is near.  Like Mencken, much of what he wrote was merely cynical, a disapproval not only of those he disagreed with, but the great mass of humanity as well.  He hated elites, except the particular brand he belonged to.
Still, he was not a stupid man, and could give and take in debate. When one is in a cynical mood, Shaw quotes can still evoke wry smiles.  I went looking for a particular quote, because it suddenly came to me that its opposite was true, and I wanted to get the wording exact.  It's an appropriate exercise, because it is a Chestertonian approach to take any common assertion and wonder "Is the opposite also true?  Is the opposite in fact more true?" Shaw and Chesterton were affectionate enemies, and debated with spirit.

So, here's the quote:
The more ignorant men are, the more convinced are they that their little parish and their little chapel is an apex to which civilization and philosophy has painfully struggled up the pyramid of time from a desert of savagery.

We see some truth in this immediately.  This expression of how silly our little ethnocentrisms and religious exclusivities are became one of the dominant ideas of the 20th C.  It is in our bones now. However...Though stated in general terms, that seems rather a charade.  Shaw may have agreed with the idea as stated, but his wording rather clearly points to England in his own day, and to religious people in particular. Parish...chapel...civilization...savagery.  Hard not to see criticism of the men of empire in that.  

But our main object was to apply the GKC treatment, turn the idea on its head, and see what happens.
He can't be much talking about Papua New Guinea, or Cote d'Ivoire, or Lappland or the Amazon Basin.  The people of those regions may indeed be very certain that they are the best folk around, and the only ones worth bothering about, but nothing in their recorded history suggests that they thought they were any apex of civilization anyone had struggled up to.  In fact, in our several discussions of seasonal and circular time it's clear that few peoples see themselves as having developed, but rather of always having been this good.  No, this is the west he's talking about.  It is Shaw, in fact, and not the rest of mankind, who is going very narrow here - though to criticise rather than praise.  Victorian and Edwardian England were rather an apex of a society which no longer believed its religion and had been experimenting with alternatives for over a century. There was a great deal of sentimentality about the C of E - its architecture, its music, its language - but other than a very few neighboring countries, England rather stands out in comparison as country without a unified creed. Compare to even the Poles or Russians, the Japanese, the Italians.  And internally, England was evidently remarkably tolerant of heterodox religious opinions.  Not enough for Shaw. Thus he gets it backward.
Doubly backward, for he also correctly notes   
Every fool believes what his teachers tell him, and calls his credulity science or morality as confidently as his father called it divine revelation.
Yes, of course, and if one perceives that "teachers" in the only real sense means people like himself more than those who teach Latin to schoolboys, then the snake has wrapped quite far around Shaw's own body at this point, and stares him in the face.  Shaw very nicely - and I grant, ahead of the curve - discovers that other religions have supplanted the former, going by other names but having the same cultural force. He deplores (some of) the new religions, and does well to expose them.  Yet he must be studiously avoiding mirrors.
Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity; and fashion will drive them to acquire any custom.
I might agree, with a pointed remark about his own defense of the Soviet Union when he was in fashion himself.  But the original remark also bears turning over.  Custom also prevents atrocity,  and resists fashion.

And finally, keeping in mind my rule that anything that is "too absurd for discussion" is probably not very true, but only believed to be true by the fashion a certain set: 
The period of time covered by history is far too short to allow of any perceptible progress in the popular sense of Evolution of the Human Species. The notion that there has been any such Progress since Caesar’s time (less than 20 centuries ago) is too absurd for discussion. All the savagery, barbarism, dark ages and the rest of it of which we have any record as existing in the past exists at the present moment.
Recently, we've gotten some numbers to support the notion that this is quite backward:  Shaw lived in one of those places where "savagery, barbarism, dark ages and the rest of it" had been diminishing for nearly half the time in question - though he was unable to perceive it.


Sam L. said...

His belief in his superiority is showing.

Anonymous said...

"Where the ramparts tower in flame or shadow
He came and saw and wagged his jaw.
Thrice fortunate, the Colorado
Has had its glimpse of Bernard Shaw."

-- Leonard Bacon, "Epitaph in Anticipation, G.B.S."

lelia said...

I never trust anyone who calls other people with whom they don't agree sheeple.