Posted: March 23, 2010
Books discussed in this essay:
Thoughts and Adventures, by Winston S. Churchill, edited by James W. Muller
he CRB's Locus Classicus section, they tell me, is for old books, worthy and aged, and deserving of a second look. This book is in some ways an odd choice for that category. Thoughts and Adventures is a book of essays written by a politician, mostly about the events of his day, with the purpose of making money. We today know very well how dreary a thing like that can be.
The author wrote other books better suited for Locus Classicus, at least on the surface. The mood ofThoughts and Adventures is in so many places different from that of, for example, Churchill's awesomeThe World Crisis, his history of the First World War. Churchill himself suffered from that cataclysm in spirit, in reputation, and in political prospect. He writes The World Crisis to explain the tragedy and to repair the blow it brought to his own fortunes. From these motives he produces a movement in six volumes, beautiful and terrible, the cadence of doom relieved by the melody of hope. It is a modern rival to Thucydides, grander and brought to completion. Now that is a work for Locus Classicus.
By contrast this book is often playful and sometimes prosaic. It contains tales of plane crashes, and though they do have a body count, the hero survives and his risks are downplayed. There is a story about cartoons. There is a guide to amateur painting. There is a how-to section on hobbies that sets off like an article from the Home Journal ("many remedies are suggested for the avoidance of worry and mental overstrain"). There is a spy story that comes to nothing and a terror incident hardly qualifying as a portent of the horrors we see today.
These disqualifications of the book to classic status are worth mentioning because they exist and may indeed disqualify it. Also they are worth mentioning because, seen rightly, they are among the qualifications of the book. One must think of them in comparison to its graver parts. One must think how they might go together with the gravity of the book to make a whole.
Consider as an example the essay "Shall We All Commit Suicide?" It is a different kind of thing than we associate with the name of Winston Churchill, the man who faced all the destruction that Hitler could wreak while flashing a "V" sign with his fingers and speaking of blood and tears. "Shall We All Commit Suicide?" raises a logical problem. Churchill had observed this problem on battlefields for more than a quarter of a century, and he thought it a menace to the life of the West. Science, he observed, had produced a technical ability to kill beyond any previous experience. It had placed this ability in the hands of men whose propensity to kill was, though relieved by mercy and justice in many, incorrigible in others. How much damage might they do? In one of the most severe passages he ever wrote, Churchill states the danger:
Mankind has never been in this position before. Without having improved appreciably in virtue or enjoying wiser guidance, it has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfailingly accomplish its own extermination.... Death stands at attention, obedient, Expectant, ready to serve, ready to shear away the peoples en masse; ready, if called on, to pulverize, without hope of repair, what is left of civilization. He awaits only the word of command. He awaits it from a frail, bewildered being, long his victim, now—for one occasion only—his Master.
Nor is this the sum of the danger. Man, this "frail, bewildered being," has long been given to corruption and violence, but now he may become worse. Scientific war has a way, Churchill thinks, of loosening the connection between power and the virtues by which it is rightly directed. Hitherto primacy in war required courage above all, and courage is one of the moral virtues, itself (so far as it goes) a qualification to rule. Where courage is found, justice and self-restraint may be nearby. The building blocks of power in former times conduced to moderation in its use. Not so much, Churchill feared, when the building blocks of power were to be found in technical competence alone. After all, that competence comes in part from a turning away from these very virtues.
Modern society is also different in structure and organization from older societies in ways that make it capable of great energy. People are better organized than ever. Principles exist that can command the loyalty of millions, that can give those same millions a stake in the society, a motive to obey the law and to contribute to the general prosperity by contributing to their own. Unimagined blessings for the common man have become available in the modern world. But these blessings make modern societies, to the same extent and for the same reason, capable of exertions in war that were previously unimagined. What they can do for man, they can also do to man.
Churchill's proposal for solving this problem is not so clear in this essay, nor is it explicit anywhere in Thoughts and Adventures—though he makes plain that suicide is the problem and not the solution! At the end of "Shall We All Commit Suicide?" he suggests that the League of Nations might supply hope. But he writes this without quite the strength or confidence that he achieves in warning of the danger. And anyway, he is not finished describing the danger. More and worse is to come in the essay that follows.
Interventions of Chance
"Mass effects in modern life" is a partner, one might say a domestic partner, to the international danger described by "Shall We All Commit Suicide?" The technical approach to war can be employed at home, too.
In an interesting beginning to this essay, Churchill raises the question whether "the march of events" is "ordered and guided by eminent men," and whether "human progress" is the "result of the resolve and deeds of individuals" or "only the outcome of time and circumstance." The question, he says, "has only to be posed to be answered." But the answer is not confined only to the "resolve and deeds" of individuals. The answer concerns also mere accidents, things that are not resolved by anyone.
If, Churchill writes, we look at "the story of nations" or of "our own small lives," we see the decisive part played by accident. "If that horse had not stumbled, if we had not met that woman, or missed or caught that train, the whole course of our lives would have been changed" And if this is true, what then of the "deflection which the Master Teachers—Thinkers, Discoverers, Commanders—have imparted at every stage"?
These eminent people are forces in their own right, causes separate from nature or from the usual way of things. All of us have this agency, but these are special people, and they have special effects. (This is a theme important to Churchill, who regarded himself as special, remarking "we are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow-worm.") Yet in the same breath as he describes these mighty beings as the shapers of history, he describes their activity as somehow parallel to chance. The interventions of such remarkable people are like the interventions of chance. Somehow the room available in nature for something other than nature to make things happen is a shared space.
This too is an old theme for Churchill. In a beautiful passage in The World Crisis he explains both the method of the book and the reason for it. He will, he writes, isolate and describe "the chain of commanding causation," along which "even the smallest events are vital." He continues:
It is these which should be studied and pondered over; for in them is revealed the profound significance of human choice and the sublime responsibility of men. No one can tell that he may not someday set a stone rolling or take or neglect some ordinary step which in its consequences will alter the history of the world.
"The sublime responsibility of men" is demonstrated, somehow, in the fact that we can alter the history of the world by a mere inadvertence. This proves, Churchill thinks, that the deeds of each of us are important. It places upon us a burden to choose well, which means to choose deliberately. In war, he wrote once to Lord Halifax, we who govern must live as the troops live, in a condition of "stress of soul." To sustain this stress, one learns in Thoughts and Adventures, we require relief; we require, for example, hobbies. The human soul has a magic property. It can wear down from overuse like the elbows of an old coat; but unlike the coat it can restore itself, not so much by rest as by the use of some other part of the soul. In two different essays about actual war service, Churchill gives examples of how even the soldiers in the trenches require this relief and can have it, if their commanders know enough to assist them.
Instructions for Living
The essay on "hobbies," and also the essay "Painting as a Pastime," are not then dissociated from the more serious essays in the book. They give an instruction for living, especially for living the life of stress imposed by the necessity of deliberating upon a high plane. If each stone that we may set rolling can alter the history of the world, we must take care of ourselves so as to do our best work. The world of hobbies, including painting, is an alternative to the world of utility, in which even the energy to be found in "the last dying kick" (as Churchill notes in The Gathering Storm) is deployed by the state for its purposes.
This deployment of the individual's last dying kick for the purposes of the state is the specific danger of modern life. "Powerful changes," Churchill writes in "Mass Effects," may be coming to pass that are hostile to the individual control of human affairs. Now the thinking man—with his high reflections and his time for repose when at leisure, with the stress of his soul when occupied—is replaced by mass conceptions. As on the battlefield, so at home, there is a process for everything, and everything is reduced to a process.
The model for the mass society is to be found in Russia, where the Bolsheviks have carried "mass conceptions to their utmost extreme." There will be universal standardization. This means of course that chance will be eliminated. The "individual becomes a function." "No one is to think of himself even as that harmonious integrity of mind, soul and body, which, take it as you will, may claim to be the ‘Lord of Creation.'" The elimination of chance involves the elimination of the individual. C.S. Lewis, a contemporary of Churchill, describes this phenomenon in similar terms under the title The Abolition of Man. The Bolsheviks do not, Churchill continues, build a society like a beehive, for there is no queen and no honey. Rather they have built the society of the White Ant.
He relieves this bleak picture in a wonderful reversal, one of the finest things he ever wrote about the subject of management, or perhaps governance is a better term.
But human nature is more intractable than ant-nature. The explosive variations of its phenomena disturb the smooth working out of the laws and forces which have subjugated the White Ant. It is at once the safeguard and the glory of mankind that they are easy to lead and hard to drive.
There is a great deal of bleakness in Thoughts and Adventures, but it is relieved and interspersed with light moments also characteristic of the book and of Churchill's thinking. The heart of the book rests in this relationship. In "Painting as a Pastime," for example, he mentions one of the most important things he ever says concerning governance and the capacity that makes one fit for it.
The paragraph comes upon one unawares, which is not the way of Churchill. He is a lovely and clear writer, and in several places he explains that this clarity is the prime feature of good writing. Key to achieving clarity is to write with a clear structure. He learned how to write, he explains, when he learned what a sentence is and then what a paragraph is. He so often writes paragraphs that begin with a thematic statement. "Events then moved quickly" is a common phrase, commonly followed by a series of sentences in the active voice, each describing an event. It is a delight to read such writing. One also gets the point.
Consider then this paragraph from "Painting as a Pastime":
Just to paint is great fun. The colours are lovely to look at and delicious to squeeze out. Matching them, however crudely, with what you see is fascinating and absolutely absorbing. Try it if you have not done so—before you die. As one slowly begins to escape from the difficulties of choosing the right colours and laying them on in the right places and in the right way, wider considerations come into view. One begins to see, for instance, that painting a picture is like fighting a battle; and trying to paint a picture is, I suppose, like trying to fight a battle. It is, if anything, more exciting than fighting it successfully. But the principle is the same. It is the same kind of problem, as unfolding a long, sustained, interlocked argument. It is a proposition which, whether of few or numberless parts, is commanded by a single unity of conception. And we think—though I cannot tell—that painting a great picture must require an intellect on the grand scale. There must be that all-embracing view which presents the beginning and the end, the whole and each part, as one instantaneous impression retentively and untiringly held in the mind. When we look at the larger Turners—canvases yards wide and tall—and observe that they are all done in one piece and represent one single second of time, and that every innumerable detail, however small, however distant, however subordinate, is set forth naturally and in its true proportion and relation, without effort, without failure, we must feel in presence of an intellectual manifestation the equal in quality and intensity of the finest achievements of warlike action, of forensic argument, or of scientific or philosophical adjudication.
War is like painting, except not so exciting. It involves the same mastery of details, the same ability to render them into an order not apparent to the common mind. And both these capacities, for war making and painting, are like the capacities for argument and for philosophy. Later in the essay, Churchill criticizes the French school of painting for its rebellions against nature; it paints tree trunks with side-to-side and water with up-and-down strokes. These artists fall "in love with [their] theories" and make "sacrifices of truth to them." Elsewhere in the essay, Churchill explains that if one observes nature "accurately and with refinement...the result follows on the canvas with startling obedience." Obedience to nature is then the guide to the painter, and one assumes, the warrior, the ruler, and the philosopher.
Putting Things Together
James Muller, professor of political science at the University of Alaska and the editor of this book, has done us a service through years of study. This book is, true enough, not among the great narratives of the great statesman Churchill. It is not a narrative at all. It is rather a picture, or perhaps a painting, of how Churchill saw life, and a painting of his own life. He looked out upon a world in which the glories of the age might lead to the destruction of the age. He saw that human making had reached a pitch of perfection never seen before, a pitch so high that it could ameliorate much of the misery of man. But in this effort it could also extinguish the elevated things in man, reduce him from his station as the Lord of Creation, and cut him off from all nature, including his own.
How shall we avoid this evil? The answer is not stated explicitly, but rather implied. It does not come as the announced theme of any essay, or even of any paragraph. One must put things together, as a statesman does when he builds his policies out of the material at hand, when he works by the light that can be found in his place so often away from the sun. Perhaps it is to be found in the soul of a man, and in particular in a certain kind of soul. That kind of soul would be like a painter in its ability to grasp and order details as they shift and change. That kind of soul would be like a painter in its attention to nature, its obedience to the commands found in nature. It would be a seeing kind of soul. It would be assertive and yet also humble before the commands that come from the ultimate sovereign.
One can observe such a soul at work in this book. It is a treasure.