Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

 
 
A Scientist on Politics (S747: 1910)
Views of Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace -- The Waste of Conflict
-- Eloquent Plea for a Nobler Spirit

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An interview by Harold Begbie printed on page five of The Daily Chronicle (London) issue of 14 November 1910. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S747.htm


    A politician, encompassed by the immediate dust of transient controversy, very often loses sight of those great human horizons which perhaps are only visible in all their grandeur and beauty to the poet and the philosopher. Sometimes even a great politician vulgarises politics.

    In those circles of society where an idea never penetrates, Liberalism has now come to be regarded with a hot disgust, not as something intellectually wrong, but as something socially disreputable. The idea that there is a philosophy of Liberalism never glimmers like a taper in these Cimmerian minds. They do not know that the Puritan Movement was the work of country gentlemen, that our earliest liberties were gained for us by the best blood in the land, that the most lofty minds and the sublimest souls in all countries and in all ages have always gone with the armies of progress. No; the science of politics is for them a mere guide-book of Etiquette. Such a person is a gentleman, therefore he is a Tory. Such a one is a Radical, therefore you cannot ask him to dinner. A Christian Socialist is something picturesque and amusing, rather naughty but almost respectable. A Radical--there is the enemy!

    To discuss the questions of the day with a man like Professor Wallace is to escape from all this pitiful vulgarity, and to catch glimpses of those great human horizons which lie far beyond the green clipped hedges of garden-parties. Like the noblest of all lyric poets, this patient and veteran seeker after truth sees that, "The only perfect and genuine republic is that which comprehends every living being"; he would certainly acknowledge that "You ought to love all mankind; nay, every individual of mankind"; and he would agree that war will continue and progress be hindered until we make "the feelings of confidence and affection universal." This is the gospel of Shelley; no fool, and something of a genius.

    It was a chance reference to the belated agitation for Protection which led my conversation with the Professor away from science and brought us suddenly into the midst of politics. He had spoken of the weekly journal "Public Opinion" with warmest praise, saying how it gives one, with a quite perfect selection, all the many-sided shades of thought which are worth attention. This, stirring my admiration for the man's catholic interests, led me to ask if he took any count of the last cry in decadent politics--"Tariff Reform."

Tariffites and Flat-Earthers.

    "No, no," he answered, laughing good-humouredly, "and for the life of me I cannot understand how people, serious and intelligent people, can waste their time over such a poor anachronism. There is a society in the world which exists for the purpose of proving that the globe on which we live is flat; it has a perfect right to this view, and I have no doubt its meetings and banquets are wonderfully agreeable; but scientific journals do not occupy their columns with the doings of this society, and serious astronomers continue their work without misgiving as to what that society will think of them. In politics there are matters much more interesting, and infinitely more important, than anything to do with tariffs; and it is to these things that serious people ought to address all their attention. The future is concerned with these things. It is for the future that the present exists."

    "To begin with--?"

    "Well, first of all in importance is the question of the Making of a Man. We have evidence as certain and irrefutable as anything in the world that character can be trained and formed. We know that the son of immoral parents, transplanted from his environment and surrounded by bracing influences, can become an industrious citizen, a thoughtful creature, and a moral being. We know this; but we do not see its immense political significance. What does it mean? Surely it tells us authoritatively that a State which seeks to be composed of first-rate, law-abiding, efficient, moral, and achieving individuals, should see above all things, first and foremost, to the training of its children. We have the matter in our own hands. We can rid ourselves of degenerates, wastrels, and criminals. It is a simple business--a question of environment and training. Only the other day I was reading the stories of three men which justify this very primitive hypothesis. A traveler in Canada was taken to the houses of three farmers; in each case he found prosperity, signs of refinement--such as beautiful gardens--and in the men themselves he observed those qualities which make for joy in existence and success in life.

The Story of Three Waifs.

    "Those three farmers were emigrants from Dr. Barnardo's Homes; they had been rescued in childhood from the worst contagion of our slums; their parents had done nothing for them, and the State had done still less. But see what training accomplished! Those boys, taken from bad surroundings and placed in moderately good surroundings, became excellent men. Evil influences were removed, good influences were set at work in their place; and all that was bad and second-rate in the boys' natures yielded to the suggestion of their better environment. Think what could be done by a State which, rich as England, devoted all its resources to the cultivation of a first-rate posterity. Think what assuredly will be done when it is recognised by the whole community that there is an infallible means of making men. Is this not a better subject to talk about than Tariff Reform?"

    After a moment he said: "How stupid and how wasteful is all this modern quarrelling over education! It is not a party question, certainly it is not a clerical question. Education is a matter for statesmen; it should be controlled by men whose one aim is the creation of a sound and healthy posterity. Science on every hand is telling politicians that they have no greater or more solemn responsibility. The day is quite gone when we could leave things to chance, when we could regard a school as a foible or a luxury. A school is the beginning of national life, a chief influence for character, the greatest instrument of evolution. All our energies should be concentrated there. We know, for certain, mark you, that the making of a man lies almost entirely and absolutely with education and environment."

    I said at this point: "In my last conversation with G. F. Watts he uttered thoughts almost exactly the same as yours. He was distressed to think that England regarded education only as a means for passing examinations and obtaining pensions. In his view education had one business--to develop the observational faculties, so that children might learn to appreciate and enjoy the gifts of life."

Brothers in One House.

    "That is one side, and only one side of the question," answered the Professor. "I should place higher the moral instruction that we must help one another. Have you ever read the account of Robert Owen's school at Lanark Mills? He had the roughest children to deal with, placed them first of all under the care of an old poor man and woman chosen only because of their love for children, and then gradually brought them on to higher instruction--all the time making it the supreme lesson of the school that the children were to help one another and make one another happy. The effect upon character was wonderful. They grew up with a great notion in their souls.

    "Oh, for pity's sake, let us get out of our heads the savage idea that life is all struggle and battle, each man fighting for himself the sole object of existence, a scramble to selfish ease or miserable egoism. Until we see life as a great field for co-operation and voluntary association, we are bound to make mistakes, bound to fill the air with discords and contentions. The beginning of a scientific and philosophic conception of politics lies in the apprehension and realisation of this universal brotherhood. We must apprehend that idea, and realise it. We must help one another. Our legislation must take the course of sharing among the whole community the burdens and joys, the responsibilities and pleasures, the opportunities and privileges which life offers to all human beings, to all members of a civilised society. We are brothers, and brothers in a single house. Is it wise that we quarrel, is it profitable that we struggle to outdo each other? No. A child could see that wisdom lies in co-operation, in confidence and affection. We must help one another."

    I spoke of Mr. Lloyd George, and the speeches which had set the country in a blaze.

Lloyd George's Work.

    "I have the very greatest admiration for that man," said Professor Wallace. "When I think of his achievement I am amazed. What a great thing it was, first of all, to conceive that Budget, then to carry the whole Cabinet with him, then to get the House of Commons at his back, and finally to triumph in the country against all the combined forces of wealth and social influence. One man's work! And a man with no traditions behind him, a man of simple parentage, a statesman made by deep thought, acute observation, and profound sympathy. Why don't his enemies see and acknowledge what a great thing he has done--certainly the greatest thing in modern politics? How pitiful and degrading it is to read in speeches of his opponents, vulgar and contemptuous references to his birth, his profession, and his manners! Is this all that they can say of a man who has accomplished an immense revolution by the shear force of unanswerable logic? Do they not perceive what a vast thing it is he has done? Cannot they detach themselves from their petty interests and transitory inconvenience, to see that he has opened a new door for England, that future generations will be stronger for his action, that the State will be safer, securer, and richer in every way for his achievement? How short-sighted they must be, if they do not perceive the inevitable consequences of his Budget! Believe me, it is a very big ball he has set rolling, and, mind you, it has only just begun to move."

    Professor Wallace was an enthusiastic land reformer when most of us were in our cradles. He holds the view that a nation to be prosperous must have free access to land, that when an acre goes out of cultivation it is a national disaster, that all artificial barriers and restrictions preventing men from pursuing husbandry must be removed, and that it is the business of the State to develop its natural resources.

    "I cannot think," he said, "why the Government does not exert more force to see that the enactments of its excellent Small Holdings Act are carried out. Unless the county council is composed of Liberals, nothing is done, or at best very little. In Cornwall and in other places where the Act is courageously applied, we hear of success, a splendid success. Why is there not a like success throughout the length and breadth of England? It is only because the selfishness of bad landlords and the subservient cowardice of county councils make the Act a dead letter. These people defy the law of the land. They should be made to obey. Imagine the folly and the madness of preventing cultivation of the land by small holders! Is this patriotism and Imperialism? Well, it is the work of the Imperialist party. What a blind set of men! The best interests of the nation are bound up in small holdings. By this Act small holdings are made a great success in many parts of the country; and yet, saying that the Act is not a good one, they oppose it and prevent the cultivation of the soil. Surely we want a firmer hand at the Board of Agriculture."

Co-operation in Politics.

    After some further conversation on this head, Professor Wallace turned once again to the general question, and regarded the troubled waters of politics from the calm summit of philosophy. "How can men hope for harmony in the social organism, for co-operation and progress in all its several divisions, while the whole scheme of things is built upon a jumbled chaos of discordance and antagonism? The foundations of our national life as they now exist are evil and irrational. There is no firm and comprehensive ground on which all men may stand and take a just view of the future. Everywhere one looks, in all the fields of life, there are contention, hostility, friction, and uncertainty. We have so organised ourselves that strife is inevitable. Between class and class, man and man, capital and labour--there is enmity. Let it be foundational with us that our purpose in framing laws is the betterment of every individual, in his own interests and in the general interest of the State, and let it be also foundational with us that prosperity and progress in a State depend upon the harmony and co-operation of all its parts--let these obvious things be agreed upon, and see at once how great a mass of contention would be got out of our path!

    "For instance, as things stand at present, there are millions of men in England whose homes and nourishment hang absolutely on the caprice of an interest-earning capital. To-day they have food, their children are happy, their homes are secure, they are permitted to work. To-morrow--because machinery has produced more of their manufactures than capital can just then sell at a profit--they are workless, turned off to live as best they can, to shift for themselves. Is it to be supposed that among these millions, with absolutely no security in life, we should find a spirit of co-operation manifesting itself towards capital, a cheerful acquiescence in the fortunes of the country? Is it reasonable that we should expect in these men loyalty and affection towards their employers? How can there be harmony with conditions such as these? Surely a wise State will so order its affairs that no hale and honest man shall be without the opportunity for beneficial activity or without the security of just wages. That seems to me an essential condition of harmony. It stares me in the face like the light of day. But, look how it is disregarded and ignored!

"Let Us Give Up Quarrelling."

    "The truth is, men are swept away by detached ideas from the fundamentals of philosophy. We need every now and then a great statesman to show us life as a whole and to state the first principles of conduct with something of the authority of an inspired prophet. How great a man was William Morris, how great a man is Tolstoy! Every now and then these voices are heard in the midst of our darkness and clamour, but they only attract the attention of a few, they only awake the affection of a very few. But what messages of truth and blessing! These men teach us the great central truths of life without which there can be no real blessing. They show us that our present methods are ugly, wasteful, and full of peril to civilisation; they show us that harmony is possible, that society can be rescued from barbarism, that the future can be grander, happier, and more beautiful than anything we have yet achieved.

    "How? Simply by acting on the moral principle that we are here to help one another. Simply by thinking as much of others as of ourselves. Simply by acting, as a State, as every good man acts as the father of a family. Why don't we take a pride in our nation, want it to be refined, cultured, virtuous, sober, and strong? Why don't we try to make the national life more beautiful and elevated? This is our aim with our families. Why not extend the aim to our nation? Life is such a grand thing. Its opportunities are so splendid. Let us give up quarrelling, and take seriously to helping one another."

    One lost all sense of party bitterness in listening to this brilliant and enthusiastic old man, who is more amused than angry, more impatient than irritated, by the slowness of young men to realise the dreams of his poets and prophets. All his endeavour is on a lofty and religious plane, where distinctions of class and wealth vanish out of view, and society is seen as one great multitude of men and women moving towards a spiritual destiny. He is not hateful of slums out of antipathy to landlords, but out of sympathy for those whose souls are cramped and rotted by their pestilence; he is not opposed to the war of competition because he has a quarrel with capital, but because he sees that it makes for misery and demoralisation; he is not a land reformer because he wants to take from those who have, but because he desires to see a great and thriving nation growing up in the noble art and amongst the pure surroundings of husbandry. He is no wildhead with high talk of equality of men, and with hot denunciation of upper-class licentiousness. No ignorant demagogue is this quiet watcher of nature, this great and patient seeker of truth, but a man eager for the good of his country, the peace of the world, and the righteous glory of humanity.

All Classes United.

    "I do wish," he said in conclusion, "that one could find among politicians something of the spirit which animates the man of science--the determined spirit to examine all things, and to pursue truth for its own sake and at whatever cost. A nation cannot afford to have its destinies in divided hands. We cannot, as a nation, walk along two roads. Dangerous is it even to be going on the same road, now forward and now backward. There ought to be a steady advance along the one road of virtue and justice. All classes in the community, united by the general principle that we are here to help one another, ought to combine so to order our social life that there is no chaos anywhere, no friction in any of the parts, no waste of fuel, no discord in the running, and no division as to the goal.

    "But this can never come about until it is brought home to the mind of every man that we are indeed here to help one another. On the acceptance of that truth hangs all progress. And, mark well, the rejection of that truth means each for himself, a struggle which can only end in a horrible anarchy. But if society agree that we are here as moral beings to help one another, to co-operate for all that is highest and best and happiest in human nature, then how short will be the life of this present jangling and hostility, how quick will be the end of our irrational methods of existence."

    "You are hopeful of the future?" I asked.

    "Well, I am not a pessimist; but sometimes I think that you younger men are marvellously slow both to see the obvious and to make use of your opportunities."

    "Democracy, you mean, has its destinies in its own hands?"

    "Yes; it is the people's fault if they are unhappy or suffer from injustice."

    "You must help to wake them up."

    He smiled behind his spectacles and shook his head. "No," he said, quietly; "it requires a younger man--to kick them out of bed!"


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