James Harvey Robinson (essay date 1917)
SOURCE: “Canada's National Policy,” in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, June, 1917, pp. 312-19.
[Robinson compares Trotter's work to that of the English philosopher Bertrand Russell.]
The importance of crises in all organic development has been emphasized by recent anthropologists and sociologists. The crisis or unexpected “fix” in which a creature finds itself furnishes the test of its capacity of readjustment. In the case of man, crisis centers attention on unobserved or ill-understood factors in a situation and may happily lead to more complete control and thus to escape from pressing difficulties. The present war is a crisis of unprecedented magnitude, and is inevitably promoting thinking of unprecedented variety and depth in regard to man's woes, their origin, nature and remedy. The English philosopher Bertrand Russell, surprised in his abstract and subtle metaphysical and mathematical speculations by undreamed-of horrors, directs the resources of an extraordinarily free and highly trained intelligence to the solution of the problem of why we act as we do. He says:
To me the chief thing to be learnt through the war has been a certain view of the springs of human action, what they are, and what we may legitimately hope that they will become. This view, if it is true, seems to afford a basis for political philosophy more capable of standing erect in a time of crisis than the philosophy of traditional Liberalism has shown itself to be.
His chief theme is not war but rather the great and fundamental reconstruction of economic and social life which shall ultimately make war repugnant to men.
The writer is not versed in the social sciences; he betrays no knowledge of his predecessors in this field of speculation. But if he has read little, he seems to have lived much, and is evidently acquainted at first hand with men's hopes and dreads, their loves and hates, their timidity and heroism; “and without understanding and sympathy it is impossible to find a cure for the evil from which the world is suffering.” This understanding and sympathy combined with a simple and unaffected mode of presentation insure his little book a wide appeal. For they serve to disguise and palliate the absolute ruthlessness with which the author sweeps away the ancient foundations of morality and religion. His is clearly such an exceptionally sweet and decent and high-minded nature that even the timid conservative may forget to recoil with proper horror when he reaches page 200 and reads: “It ought to be recognized that the law is only concerned with marriage through the question of children, and should be indifferent to what is called ‘morality,’ which is based upon custom and texts of the Bible, not upon any real consideration of the needs of the community.” The gentle reader will already have weathered on page 134 the conclusion that “no good to the community, of any sort or kind, results from the private ownership of land. If men were reasonable, they would decree that it should cease tomorrow, with no compensation beyond a moderate life income to the present holders.” Taken from their context, these passages produce the impression of lawless radicalism; in the setting in which Mr. Russell places them they seem almost as safe and harmless as the fireside musings of a Presbyterian elder who has just lent ten thousand dollars on a six per cent mortgage.
The object of life is growth and to “the principle of growth” the author devotes his first lecture. Now our present institutions are not designed to promote the free and joyous development of the individual as a member of society, for “all our institutions have their historic basis in Authority,” and the main purpose of all ancient authority is to hamper the great mass of people and keep them in a safe routine. The promotion of personal adventure is not the object of the Justinian Code, the church, the state, the school, or the institution of matrimony. They all agree in harshly recommending a patient conformity rather than cheerful self-expansion. Accordingly Mr. Russell reviews the disastrous effects of existing institutions under the following headings: “The State,” “War as an Institution,” “Property,” “Education,” “Marriage and the Population Question,” “Religion and the Churches,” with a final chapter on “What we can Do.”
As for the state, the author's aim is to show “how great, how unnecessary, how harmful, many of its powers are, and how enormously they might be diminished without loss of what is useful in its activity.” “It is the essence of the State to suppress violence within and to facilitate it without. The State makes an entirely artificial division of mankind and of our duties towards them; towards one group we are bound by law, towards the other only by the prudence of highwaymen.” The very vastness of the modern state results in a sense of personal helplessness, which is paralyzing to individual initiative. So the state is “one of the chief causes of misery in the modern world and one of the main reasons for the discouragement which prevents men from growing to their full mental stature.” The remedy seems to lie in a complete revision of the external relations of states to one another, together with far more spontaneous internal social combination, of which syndicalism is an adumbration, under general state control.
Property represents an excessive emphasis on possession as against the joys of creation. The writer believes that
incalculable benefits might result from industrial democracy, either on the co-operative model or with the recognition of a trade or industry as a unit for purposes of government, with some kind of Home Rule such as syndicalism aims at securing. There is no reason why all governmental units should be geographical: this system was necessary in the past because of the slowness of means of communication, but it is not necessary now.
Our present methods of education fail conspicuously in “reverence” for the child's individuality and proper freedom. The joy of mental adventure Mr. Russell deems to be far commoner in the young than is ordinarily assumed. However this may be there is certainly no great tendency at present to give it a show.
Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth. … It is fear that holds men back—fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be. Should the working man think freely about property? Then what will become of us, the rich? Should young men and young women think freely about sex? Then what will become of morality? Should soldiers think freely about war? Then what will become of military discipline?1
There are many frank and sagacious observations on marriage and the relations of men and women out of matrimony. Our old ideas are based on authority, the new must be based on liberty. “Here, as elsewhere, liberty is the basis of political wisdom. And when liberty has been won, what remains to be desired must be left to the conscience and religion of individual men and women.” For the older notions of religion Russell naturally has no sympathy; however appropriate they may have been when men knew less, modern knowledge and criticism have destroyed the assumptions on which they were based. To him the problem is to find a harmonious situation in which our fundamental instincts, our powers of reasoning and our kindly interest in our fellow men should one and all receive proper recognition. “Instinct, mind and spirit are each a help to the others when their development is free and unvitiated; but when corruption comes into any one of the three, not only does that one fail, but the others also become poisoned.” The writer is particularly sensitive to the dangerous suppression of instinct in historical religions, especially Christianity. He is also on his guard against an exaggerated intellectualism which is not blended with “reverence” for our fundamental impulses and for our fellow creatures....
(The entire section is 3432 words.)