Above the battle/VIII

 

VIII

THE IDOLS

For more than forty centuries it has been the effort of great minds who have attained liberty to extend this blessing to others; to liberate humanity and to teach men to see reality without fear or error, to look themselves in the face without false pride or false humility and to recognise their weakness and their strength, that they may know their true position in the universe. They have illumined the path with the brightness of their lives and their example, like the star of the magi, that mankind may have light.

Their efforts have failed. For more than forty centuries humanity has remained in bondage—I do not say to masters (for such are of the order of the flesh, of which I am not speaking here; and their chains break sooner or later) but to the phantoms of their own minds. Such servitude comes from within. We grow faint in the endeavour to cut the bonds which bind mankind, who straightway tie them again to be more firmly enthralled. Of every liberator men make a master. Every ideal which ought to liberate is transformed into a clumsy Idol. The history of humanity is the history of Idols and of their successive reigns; and as humanity grows older the power of the Idol seems to wax greater and more destructive.

At first the divinities were of wood, of stone, or of metal. Those at any rate were not proof against the axe or against fire. Others followed that no material force could reach, for they were graven in the invisible mind. Yet all aspired to material dominion, and to secure for them that dominion the peoples of the world have poured out their best blood: Idols of religions and of nationality: the Idol of liberty whose reign was established in Europe by the armies of the sans-culotte at the point of the bayonet. The masters have changed, the slaves are still the same. Our century has made the acquaintance of two new species. The Idol of Race, at first the outcome of noble ideas, became in the laboratories of spectacled savants the Moloch which Germany hurled herself against France in 1870 and which her enemies now wish to use against the Germany of to-day. The latest on the scene is that authentic product of German science, fraternally allied to the labours of industry, of commerce, and of the firm of Krupp—the Idol of Kultur surrounded by its Levites, the thinkers of Germany.

The common feature of the cult of all Idols is the adaptation of an ideal to the evil instincts of mankind. Man cultivates the vices which are profitable to him, but feels the necessity of legitimising them; being unwilling to sacrifice them, he must idealise them. That is why the problem at which he has never ceased to labour throughout the centuries has been to harmonise his ideals with his own mediocrity. He has always succeeded. The crowd has no difficulty here. It sets side by side its virtues and its vices, its heroism and its meanness. The force of its passions and the rapid course of the days which carry it along cause it to forget its lack of logic.

But the intelligent few cannot satisfy themselves with so little effort. Not that they are, as is often said, less readily swayed by passion. This is a grave error; the richer a life becomes the more does it offer for passion to devour, and history sufficiently shows the terrifying paroxysms to which the lives of religious leaders and revolutionaries have attained. But these toilers in the spirit love careful work, and are repelled by popular modes of thought which perpetually break through the meshes of reasoning. They have to make a more closely woven net in which instinct and idea, cost what it may, combine to form a stouter tissue. They thus achieve monstrous chefs-d'œuvre. Give an intellectual any ideal and any evil passion and he will always succeed in harmonising the twain. The love of God and the love of mankind have been invoked in order to burn, kill, and pillage. The fraternity of 1793 was sister to the Holy Guillotine. We have in our time seen Churchmen seeking and finding in the Gospels the justification of Banking and of War. Since the outbreak of the war a clergyman of Würtemberg established the fact that neither Christ nor John the Baptist nor the apostles desired to suppress militarism[1] A clever intellectual is a conjuror in ideas. "Nothing in my hands—nothing up my sleeves." The great trick is to extract from any given idea its precise contrary—war from the Sermon on the Mount, or, like Professor Ostwald, the military dictatorship of the Kaiser from the dream of an intellectual internationalism. For such conjurors these things are but child's-play.

Let us expose them, by examining the words of this Dr. Ostwald, who has appeared during the last few months as the Baptist of the Gospel of the spiked helmet.

Here is the Idol to begin with—Kultur (made in Germany), with a capital K "rectiligne et de quatre pointes, comme un cheval de frise," as Miguel de Unamuno wrote to me. All around are little gods, the children of its loins: Kulturstaat, Kulturbund, Kulturimperium.…

"I am now" (it is the voice of Ostwald[2]) "going to explain to you the great secret of Germany. We, or rather the Germanic race, have discovered the factor of Organisation. Other peoples still live under the régime of individualism while we are under that of Organisation. The stage of Organisation is a more advanced stage of civilisation."

It is surely clear that, like those missionaries who, in order to carry the Christian faith to heathen peoples, secure the co-operation of a squadron and a landing party, which straightway establish in the idolatrous country commercial stores protected by a ring of cannon, German intelligence cannot without selfishness keep her treasures to herself. She is obliged to share them.

"Germany wishes to organise Europe, for Europe has hitherto not been organised. With us everything tends to elicit from each individual the maximal output in the direction most favourable for society. That for us is liberty in its highest form."

We may well pause to marvel at this way of talking about human "culture" as though it were a question of asparagus and artichokes. Of this happiness, and these advantages, this maximal output, this market-garden culture, this liberty of artichokes subjected to a judicious forcing process, Professor Ostwald does not wish to deprive the other peoples of Europe. As they are so unenlightened as not to acquiesce with enthusiasm:

"War will make them participate in the form of this organisation in our higher civilisation."

Thereupon the chemist-philosopher, who is also in his leisure hours a politician and a strategist, sketches in bold outline the picture of the victories of Germany and a remodelled Europe—a United States of Europe under the paternal sceptre of his mailed Kaiser: England crushed, France disarmed, and Russia dismembered. His colleague Haeckel completes this joyous exposé by dividing Belgium, the British Empire, and the North of France—like Perrette of the fable before her pitcher broke. Unfortunately neither Haeckel nor Ostwald tell us if their plan for the establishment of this higher civilisation included the destruction of the Halle of Ypres, of the Library at Louvain, of the Cathedral at Rheims. After all these conquests, divisions, and devastations, let us not overlook this wonderful sentence of which Ostwald certainly did not realise the sinister buffoonery, worthy of a Molière: "You know that I am a pacifist."

However far the high priests of a cult may allow their emotion to carry them, their profession of faith still retains a certain diplomatic reserve which does not hamper their followers. Thus the Kulturmenschen. But the zeal of their Levites must frequently disturb the serenity of Moses and Aaron—Haeckel and Ostwald—by its intemperate frankness. I do not know what they think of the article of Thomas Mann which appeared in the November number of the Neue Rundschau: "Gedanken im Kriege." But I do know what certain French intellectuals will think of it. Germany could not offer them a more terrible weapon against herself.

In an access of delirious pride and exasperated fanaticism Mann employs his envenomed pen to justify the worst accusations that have been made against Germany. While an Ostwald endeavours to identify the cause of Kultur with that of civilisation, Mann proclaims: "They have nothing in common. The present war is that of Kultur (i.e. of Germany) against civilisation." And pushing this outrageous boast of pride to the point of madness, he defines civilisation as Reason (Vernunft, Aufklärung), Gentleness (Sittigung, Sänftigung), Spirit (Geist, Auflôsung), and Kultur as "a spiritual organisation of the world" which does not exclude "bloody savagery." Kultur is "the sublimation of the demoniacal" (die Sublimierung des Dämonischen). It is "above morality, above reason, and above science." While Ostwald and Haeckel see in militarism merely an arm or instrument of which Kultur makes use to secure victory, Thomas Mann affirms that Kultur and Militarism are brothers—their ideal is the same, their aim the same, their principle the same. Their enemy is peace, is spirit ("Ja, der Geist ist zivil, ist bürgerlich"). He finally dares to inscribe on his own and his country's banner the words, "Law is the friend of the weak; it would reduce the world to a level. War brings out strength."

Das Gesetz ist der Freund des Schwachen,
Möchte gern die Welt verflachen
Aber der Krieg lässt die Kraft erscheinen …

In this criminal glorification of violence, Thomas Mann himself has been surpassed. Ostwald preached the victory of Kultur, if necessary by Force; Mann proved that Kultur is Force. Some one was needed to cast aside the last veil of reserve and say "Force alone. All else be silent." We have read extracts from the cynical article in which Maximilian Harden, treating the desperate efforts of his Government to excuse the violation of Belgian neutrality as feeble lies, dared to write:

"Why on earth all this fuss? Might creates our Right. Did a powerful man ever submit himself to the crazy pretensions or to the judgment of a band of weaklings?"

What a testimony to the madness into which German intelligence has been precipitated by pride and struggle, and to the moral anarchy of this Empire, whose organisation is imposing only to the eyes of those who do not see farther than the façade! Who cannot see the weakness of a Government which gags its socialist press and yet tolerates such an insulting contradiction as this? Who does not see that such words defame Germany before the whole world for centuries to come? These miserable intellectuals imagine that with their display of infuriated Nietzcheism and Bismarckism they are acting heroically and impressing the world. They merely disgust it. They wish to be believed. People are only too ready to believe them. The whole of Germany will be made responsible for the delirium of a few writers. Germany will one day realise she has had no more deadly enemy than her own intellectuals.

I write here without prejudice, for I am certainly not proud of our French intellectuals. The Idol of Race, or of Civilisation, or of Latinity, which they so greatly abuse, does not satisfy me. I do not like any idol—not even that of Humanity. But at any rate those to which my country bows down are less dangerous. They are not aggressive, and, moreover, there remains even in the most fanatical of our intellectuals a basis of native common sense, of which the Germans of whom I have just spoken seem to have lost all trace. But it must be admitted that on neither side have they brought honour to the cause of reason, which they have not been able to protect against the winds of violence and folly. There is a saying of Emerson's which is applicable to their failure:

"Nothing is more rare in any man than an act of his own."

Their acts and their writings have come to them from others, from outside, from public opinion, blind and menacing. I do not wish to condemn those who have been obliged to remain silent either because they are in the armies, or because the censorship which rules in countries involved in war has imposed silence upon them. But the unheard-of weakness with which the leaders of thought have everywhere abdicated to the collective madness has certainly proved their lack of character.

Certain somewhat paradoxical passages in my own writings have caused me at times to be styled an anti-intellectual; an absurd charge to bring against one who has given his life to the worship of thought. But it is true that Intellectualism has often appeared to me as a mere caricature of Thought—Thought mutilated, deformed, and petrified, powerless, not only to dominate the drama of life, but even to understand it. And the events of to-day have proved me more in the right than I wished to be. The intellectual lives too much in the realm of shadows, of ideas. Ideas have no existence in themselves, but only through the hopes or experiences which can fill them. They are either summaries, or hypotheses; frames for what has been or will be; convenient or necessary formulæ. One cannot live and act without them, but the evil is that people make them into oppressive realities. No one contributes more to this than the intellectual, whose trade it is to handle them, who, biassed by his profession, is always tempted to subordinate reality to them. Let there supervene a collective passion which completes his blindness, and it will be cast in the form of the idea which can best serve its purpose: it transfers its life-blood to that idea, and the idea magnifies and glorifies it in turn. Nothing is more long-lived in a man than a phantom which his own mind has created, a phantom in which are combined the madness of his heart and the madness of his head. Hence the intellectuals in the present crisis have not been overcome by the warlike contagion less than others, but they have themselves contributed to spreading it. I would add (for it is their punishment) that they are victims of the contagion for a longer period: for whilst simple folk constantly submit to the test of everyday action and of experience, and modify their ideas without conscious regret, the intellectual finds himself bound in the net of his own creation and every word that he writes draws the bonds tighter. Hence while we see that in the soldiers of all armies the fire of hate is rapidly dying down and that they already fraternise from trench to trench, the writers redouble their furious arguments. We can easily prophesy that when the remembrance of this senseless war has passed away among the people its bitterness will still be smouldering in the hearts of the intellectuals.…

Who shall break the idols? Who shall open the eyes of their fanatical followers? Who shall make them understand that no god of their minds, religious or secular, has the right to force himself on other human beings—even he who seems the most worthy—or to despise them? Admitting that your Kultur on German soil produces the sturdiest and most abundant human crop, who has entrusted to you the mission of cultivating other lands? Cultivate your own garden. We will cultivate ours. There is a sacred flower for which I would give all the products of your artificial culture. It is the wild violet of Liberty. You do not care about it. You tread it under foot. But it will not die. It will live longer than your masterpieces of barrack and hot-house. It is not afraid of the wind. It has braved other tempests than that of to-day. It grows under brambles and under dead leaves. Intellectuals of Germany, intellectuals of France, labour and sow on the fields of your own minds: respect those of others. Before organising the world you have enough to do to organise your own private world. Try for a moment to forget your ideas and behold yourselves. And above all, look at us. Champions of Kultur and of Civilisation, of the Germanic races and of Latinity, enemies, friends, let us look one another in the eyes. My brother, do you not see there a heart similar to your own, with the same hopes, the same egoism, and the same heroism and power of dream which for ever refashions its gossamer web? Vois-tu pas que tu es moi? said the old Hugo to one of his enemies.…

The true man of culture is not he who makes of himself and his ideal the centre of the universe, but who looking around him sees, as in the sky the stream of the Milky Way, thousands of little flames which flow with his own; and who seeks neither to absorb them nor to impose upon them his own course, but to give himself the religious persuasion of their value and of the common source of the fire by which all alike are fed. Intelligence of the mind is nothing without that of the heart. It is nothing also without good sense and humour—good sense which shows to every people and to every being their place in the universe—and humour which is the critic of misguided reason, the soldier who, following the chariot to the Capitol, reminds Cæsar in his hour of triumph that he is bald.

Journal de Genève, December 4, 1914.

  1. The Evangelical pastor Schrenck in an article on "War and the New Testament," quoted with approval by the Rev. Ch. Correvon in the Journal religieux of Neuchâtel, November 14th.
  2. In a declaration to the editor of the Swedish paper Dagen.