You can't be too careful, by H. G. Wells

Chapter the First and Last

Political Animals?

THE PRECEDING BOOK in the life of Edward Albert Tewler has been a long one. Now by way of relief the reader shall have a very short one. And the air of it will be free from that flavour of indelicacy which is unhappily so inseparable from a truthful rendering of sexual life.

It is necessary, if this monograph is to be complete, that a statement of Aristotle’s should be considered, and this again involves a certain qualified tribute to the contribution of that outstanding figure to the entanglement of human thought. He looms large in the history of the mind, so that millions who have never heard more of him than his name, treat it with an almost superstitious respect. He devised a logical process that ignored the universal uniqueness of events, fixed species, which nevertheless fluctuate eternally, and substitute^ dogmatic generalisation for protean truth. Later, he drifted away from this towards the systematic collection and record of fact, but the syllogism of the young Aristotle remained to hamper the human mind, and bookish scholars in monastic cells, unable and unwilling to go out and observe and experiment further, made the hasty accumulations of the old Aristotle their test of reality instead of carrying on with his marshalling of knowledge.

As Christian teaching developed its Creeds after the conversion of Constantine, it appropriated the intellectual prestige of Aristotle, and, until Roger Bacon made his shrill and passionate protests, the church kept the mind aloof from the ever-changing realities about him. So through the Early Dark Ages, the genus Homo blundered along dismally and dirtily, learning next to nothing by experience and suffering. All of which will be expanded further in the Sixth Book of this complete and veracious study of a sample contemporary man. For in his generation, Edward Albert was the heir to it all. It had gone to his making and limitation even though he knew nothing about it. And so it is with all of us. None of us would have been what we are if Aristotle had never lived, to mark and fix a cardinal error in the bewilderment of human thought.

This passing tribute to the outstanding classic is paid prematurely here, because it is the necessary setting for one of his uncorrected inaccuracies, in all its unmitigated and unjustifiable assurance. “Man,” said he, without qualification, “is a political animal.”

Now this is neither wholly false nor wholly true. It is false in so far as Homo Tewler does not behave as a political animal should do, participating with the utmost fullness in the collective life of the polis, but it is true in the sense that his life is inseparable from that collective life and that he cannot escape from it, whatever he does to detach himself. Even your misanthropical recluse still contributes an implicit or outspoken criticism to the general life. So that if we qualify Aristotle and say that man is an inadequately Political Animal, we can accept his statement.

The polls of Aristotle was a city state, but now the human community has expanded, function by function, irregularly and confusedly, to a Cosmopolis — the whole human species. A man belongs now to a hundred different systems of relationship overlapping one another; a hundred different loyalties claim him; but comprehending all of them now and growing continually more insistent is our common humanity. No one can escape the common fate that awaits our species as a whole, but so far few of us apprehend as much, and still fewer have roused themselves to do anything about it. We are in the ship of human destiny but we have very little control of it, We still treat our cabins as separate ships. (My metaphor is faulty but my intention is manifest.) The polls has us but we fail to take hold of the polis.

Aristotle’s conception of political possibility never ranged beyond the city state or a league of city states, because in his time the progressive abolition of distance was inconceivable. But the Greek idea embodied in his expression “Political Animal”, the treatment of the words “city” and “citizens” as reciprocal terms, the distinction between civilised and barbaric expansion as the difference between the extended city on the one hand, and, on the other, conquest and the exaction of tribute, “cooperation” and homage, has been a working opposition throughout the ages down to our own time. Rome did not begin as an Imperium. The initial idea of the Roman Republic was not an idea of conquest but assimilation; from Scotland to Samarkand men could become citizens of the city of Rome. Invention and discovery have now expanded the polis of Aristotle to Cosmopolis, the Barbarian is a mere gangster, a savage brought within the compass of the city, all war is crime and civil war, and it is by, through and in a world-order that we live or fail to live today. Manifestly, then, our Edward Albert Tewler and his neighbours in Morningside Prospect at the heart of a cosmic time bomb, must, like everybody else in the world now, display man as a Political Animal, however unawakened he may be to the real extent of the Cosmopolis.

Considered as an assembly of Political Animals, the tenants of Morningside Prospect displayed the same quality of discreet reluctance towards harsh realities that was also manifest in their religious and philosophical attitudes. Then citizenship was a sleeping partnership. They were not pressing or attacking in these matters, so that they do not complicate our study by advancing ideas of their own“and attempting to change the world in any way whatever. This simplifies them very conveniently for our purpose. A single declared Fascist or Communist or Jehovah’s Witness or Single Taxer or Douglasite, for example, would have put us askew by orienting the entire Prospect to his complex of ideas and setting them organising and resisting for or against it. He would have concentrated attention like a hornet come into a roomful of quiet people. But suchlike disturbers of the peace were far away, a distant buzzing, and the word “Bawls” protected this place of rest as effectively as an angel with a flaming fiery sword.

The whole of Morningside Prospect had made its peace with God, and it felt that if you didn’t annoy God, He could be trusted not to annoy you. The faint flavour of Rome that hung about that biretta and soutane excused any persistent church going. Which would not have occurred anyhow. There would always have been some faint flavour or other in extenuation. One or two of the ladies “communicated” at Easter and assisted with the decorations at Harvest Thanksgiving. If some Buzzer had got through with whispers of unbelief, Morningside Prospect would not have argued, it would have “stood up” for God simply and firmly. If on the other hand the Redeemer of Mankind, whose authentic portraits adorned quite a number of the Prospect bedrooms, had appeared, true to those pictures, white-robed and radiant) Morningside Prospect would have quietly gone indoors, fastened the door, and watched this intrusive anachronism discreetly from behind a blind, apprehensive of any little miracles that might occur. A few with memories of their early Sunday school lessons might have felt anxious about Mrs Rooter’s fig tree at the end of the row, because He was notoriously hasty with fig trees, and hers was notoriously barren.

So much for the religion of Morningside. Its attitude towards Nature was equally passive. The Prospect had dismissed any curiosity it had ever possessed about Nature, It had decided that Nature also was quite trustworthy if you didn’t mess about with her. There were the Secrets of Nature, but no decent person ever dreamt of raising her skirts. There were the Wonders of Nature, but there was no need to pry into them. You just said they were wonderful. You went out and looked up at the stars on a starry night. You remained still for a time. “It makes you think,” you said profoundly, and thought no more about it.

But Politics wasn’t so easily dismissed. There were rates to pay and they had a tendency to go up; there were taxes which rose steadily. There were municipal and parliamentary elections. People put handbills into the letter-boxes and canvassers came round and asked Morningside Prospect questions at which the Prospect shook its head in an enigmatical manner. It had no taste for doorstep arguments. When a general election loomed up, the public disturbance was considerable, and Morningside Prospect was forced to share it. It broke into speech. Views were exchanged, at golf and over garden fences; newspapers with marked passages were handed about. The characters of prominent political leaders were weighed. It got as far as that. Personal experiences hitherto held in reserve were brought to light.

There was Mr Pildington who lived for many years of trusted service in a general depot at Johore. Upon any issue affecting India or the East generally, his brief utterances were felt to be final. There was Mr Stannish again, of Tintern, who had experienced the evils of Trade Unionism and the improvidence of the working class, on the clerical staff of a mining corporation in South Wales. You could tell him nothing he did not know against the Labour Party, Mr Copper of Caxton had worked with a big printing firm which produced a constellation of trade weeklies, and he came out very strongly in favour of extending the law of libel so as to restrain die publication of any criticism that was not entirely favourable and signed by the writer. His firm had made a bad debt by publishing a periodical called Scientific Truth, which had fallen foul of a gentleman who claimed to have discovered a cure for cancer, had denounced him as a mischievous impostor and had had to pay heavy damages and go into bankruptcy. The Plaintiff had not discovered a cure for cancer and his nostrum was deadly, but that was held by the court to be irrelevant.

Mr Copper had been partly responsible for the issue of this periodical, and the experience, he said, had taught him a lesson.

“These critics,” said Mr Copper, whose intelligence was sufficiently narrow to be acute, “these critics, you see, they disregard the capital a man lays out in building up a reputation. It’s nothing to them. They just think they have the right to run him down exactly as they please. There’s hardly a business that could stand it. This case was touch-and-go, but our chap went too far in his abuse. It’s plain sense you got to put it down. There isn’t a thing in heaven or earth that’s safe while this criticism runs loose. So now at every election I ask the candidates whether they agree to back my Control of Criticism Bill. Had it drafted and printed all right and proper. You didn’t know of that? I get pledges from both sides, always, but somehow they never seem to push it through up there. Hammer away, I say, hammer away. No need to talk about it. It’s just my hobby, so to speak. You wouldn’t care to have a copy of my Bill? You needn’t read it. . . . ”

All Morningside Prospect was agreed that rates and taxes had increased, were increasing and ought to be diminished. The vote was something given to the free-born citizen primarily to defend him against these assaults upon his peace of mind. So that as the election drew near, Morningside Prospect really made an effort to distinguish between the competing candidates who were seeking their suffrages, in this particular respect. Would they keep rates down and taxes down? All candidates promised gladly and there the matter ended. Brighthampton was a complex constituency with a slum district harbouring a swarm of skilled and semi-skilled workers. Morningside Prospect believed that these people of the back streets were mainly engaged in almost incredibly rapid multiplication, and shared the outspoken indignation of Dean Inge at decent people being asked to provide health and education for this unbridled pullullation of the “Unfit.” Like Oliver Twist, these creatures were always asking for more, stimulated in their extravagant demands by agitators, whom Morningside Prospect believed to be invariably of foreign origin and incredible malignity. So that there was a third party in the Brighthampton constituency, known to Morningside Prospect as the “Squandermaniacs”, a Labour Party dominated by some Russian agent, Bill Smith or McAndrew, apprehensions by a vigorous advocacy of peace and to induce his fellow Tewlers (var. Anglicanus) to confirm his hope for a world in which there would be no more war, but everything else going on as usual. With all their facilities some of his subsidiaries did a bit of arms smuggling, but Sir Humbert did his very utmost not to know anything about that. He did not hesitate, as the passions of electioneering rose, to call Sir Adrian a war-monger. But this was a gross libel. Sir Adrian was not a war-monger; he was a wholesale iron-monger.

If he had really wanted to sell war to the world, he would not have confined himself to the big battleship business. He would have gone in for financially less important equipment, for air and undersea attacks, warfare in narrow seas and with amphibious craft. But at the time of the Abyssinian crisis, when Mussolini threatened the British fleet with dive bombing, the British government had to give in ignominiously because their ships had no anti-aircraft ammunition. Little matters of that sort were chicken-food to Sir Adrian. Nothing could prove more convincingly that at heart Sir Adrian and Sir Humbert were equally pacificist and equally prepared to carry on with business during business hours and retire to their own magnificent versions of Morningside, to peerages, great mansions, ranches, yachts, mistresses, as convinced as Edward Albert that all that was going on for ever. We do these worthy men injustice to impute either wickedness or intelligence to them. They were just outsize Tewlers.

Whenever an opportunity to abolish war by any sort of vote arose, Morningside Prospect voted without hesitation and abolished it. War has been abolished again and again since 1918. The League of Nations put an end to war, the Kellogg Pact abolished it, a Peace Pledge taken by millions refused all further participation in warfare. What more could you have? People went on making weapons out of habit, and to terminate their employment too abruptly would have caused considerable financial inconvenience. There were, however, a number of international Conferences, inspired by the noblest sentiments, to limit and restrain armaments, for which now there could never be any positive use. You cannot be too careful, as Sir Adrian insisted. There is a negative use for armaments in these matters. Peace in a world of sovereign states is necessarily a neutralisation, an equalisation, a careful balance of gun against gun and ship against ship. You even let the belligerent Germans have a carefully-rationed army and fleet. How could they sustain public security and maintain their national self — respect without these things? What uniforms could they wear? What decorations? The adjustment of forces is no doubt a delicate one, but how else is Security possible? The Foreign Office and the Diplomatic Service saw to that with a peculiar wisdom and subtlety above the understanding of common men. . . .,

All round the world, and according to their scope and scale, the Morningsides, happy in this dangerously balanced Security, pursued the even tenor of their ways, oblivious, deliberately oblivious, to the time bomb of Destiny, that ticked more and more audibly beneath their feet, Only belatedly did a certain rocking of the ground and queer outbreaks of stink and steam, assume a personal significance. Only with extreme reluctance would Edward Albert allow himself to think that this heaving danger might after all be addressed to him.

The ingredients and factors in this time bomb that is now blowing all the Morningside Prospects, all the self-complacencies of the world of Homo Tewler sky high, are gradually being made plain by the distressful criticism of its scattered victims. Man’s own unregulated and surprising inventions and discoveries have made all the earth one simultaneous community, and released such a volume of available physical and undirected human energy as superannuates all the religious, traditional, historical methods that have hitherto kept the species going. Our circumstances demand a world — wide moral and intellectual revolution beyond all the precedents and possibilities of former times. To the very last the Tewlers in any position of advantage have been sitting upon the safety-valves of expression, of warning, information and any adaptation, until what might have been a deliberate readjustment has become a violent explosion, an explosion that will now either blow Homo Tewler far up the scale of conscious being or out of the universe altogether. In which latter case we, here and now, are the last men addressing ourselves to a posterity which will never exist.

This is a sweeping statement. But you cannot write about a germ or an atom nowadays without the universe coming in We can take nothing for granted because we have realised the reciprocity of part and Whole. Our next succeeding Book must focus down again upon Edward Albert, and tell how the explosion hit and lifted him and his at last out of the contentment of Morningside Prospect altogether.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wells/hg/you-cant-be-too-careful/book4.1.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30