Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Voice from the Great War

I have an old book, Heath Readings in the Literature of England (edited by Cross and Goode, 1927). It was my mother’s book from her high school days. It has sat by my elbow for occasional reading over the past couple of years. It ends with an essay by John Galsworthy, “Castles in Spain”, written just after the First Great War in 1921.

Here are some words from near the end of the essay:
Fear is at the back of nearly all the savagery in the world; and if there be not present in the individual that potent antidote—the sense of human dignity, which is but a love of and belief in beauty, he must infallibly succumb to fear.
He adds:
… democracy has no greater enemies than her unthinking friends. Short sight is her danger, short sight verging on blindness. What will happen if democracy really goes blind? She must have an ideal, a star on which to fix her eyes—something distant and magnetic to draw her on, something to strive towards, beyond the troubled and shifting needs, passions, and prejudices of the moment. Lovers of beauty, those who wish to raise the dignity of human life, should try to give her that ideal, to equip her with the only vision which can save the world from spite and the crazy competition which leads thereto.

How precisely these words describe our lives today! Galsworthy wrote as the world rested from a debilitating war, which had exhausted and terrified everyone. We read his words in the context of relative peace and prosperity, but politicians in Europe and North America have stoked the fires of fear in order to gain power. “Fear is at the back of nearly all the savagery in the world …”

We have reasons to fear. The breakdown of various societies is cause for fear—problems in Somalia and Syria have their results in North America and Europe. But fear is a poor guide for policy. Fear can make our democracy blind, blind through a short-sighted focus on the symptoms of social breakdown. A longer view would see the underlying causes and identify possible courses of action to restore society.

An even longer view grows out of a clear eye focussed on beauty and good. I want to identify closely with the true and the good, where the greatest beauty and joy is found, rather than focus on the fears that swirl around us, stoked by politicians from every side. We can and should live prudently, aware of the dangers of life. We cannot and should not orient our lives to fear, but rather hold on what Galsworthy calls “castles in Spain”, our highest and best ideals.

Living by fear, we become consumed with the problems of our world. Living into our highest ideals, we become ourselves truly good, truly beautiful.

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