IX AN ENGLISHMAN PHILOSOPHIZES
AN ENGLISHMAN PHILOSOPHIZES
OF course one cannot mention his name. He always disliked publicity. It was a source of pride with him that his name had never appeared in the papers. Unless it appears in the "Roll of Honor," it probably never will. Let us call him "the Average Englishman." It is what he used to aim at being, and if such a being can be said to exist, surely he was it.
As regards philosophizing---well, he simply didn't. He had not read philosophy at a University, and he never would think things out. He disapproved of men in his position attempting anything of the sort. He considered it a waste of time and rather unwholesome. To talk about one's innermost convictions he regarded as indecent. The young curate from Oxford, who talks best about God after a bottle of champagne, shocked him badly. He said that it was blasphemous. His own point of view was a modest one. Where the learned differed so widely, he argued, it was hardly likely that his inadequate mental equipment would help him to a sound conclusion. The nearest approach to a philosophy that he possessed was wholly practical, empirical, even opportunist. It was not a philosophy at all, but a code of honor and morals, based partly on tradition and partly on his own shrewd observation of the law of cause and effect as illustrated in the lives of his neighbors. As a philosophy it remained unformulated. He refused even to discuss its philosophical and theological implications. In fact, his was "the religion of all sensible men," and "sensible men don't tell" what that is.
It suited him to be outwardly orthodox. His mother liked him to take her to church on Sunday. To see him doing so increased the confidence of his professional clientèle. Also, the vicar was a friend of his, and played a capital game of golf. So he was orthodox; but abstract truth was not his job. He left that to the parsons and professors.
That this was the standpoint which he adopted is not altogether surprising. It worked. It enabled him to meet quite adequately all the mild exigencies of his uneventful life and unexciting personality. For his life was dull and his personality far too habitually restrained to offer any sensations. If hidden fires had ever burned beneath his somewhat conventional exterior, they had received no encouragement, and had soon died out for want of air.
Suddenly, quite unexpectedly, he found himself lifted out of his office chair, and after a short interval deposited "somewhere in France." Here he found himself leading a ridiculously uncivilized and uncomfortable life, and standing in constant danger of being blown to pieces. Naturally the transition was a little bewildering. Outwardly he remained calm; but below the surface strange things were happening ---nothing less than a complete readjustment of his mental perspective. Somehow his code, hitherto so satisfactory, failed to suffice for the new situation in which he found himself. The vaguely good-natured selfishness which had earned for him the title of "good fellow" in the quiet days of peace did not quite fit in with the new demands made on his personality. Much against his will, he had to try to think things out.
It was an unmitigated nuisance. His equipment was so poor. He had read so little that was of any use to him. All that he could remember were some phrases from the Bible, some verses from Omar Khayyám, and a sentence or two from the Latin Syntax. And then his brain was so unaccustomed to this sort of effort. It made him quite tired; but it had to be done. A man couldn't sit in a trench hour after hour and day after day with shells whizzing through the air over his head, or bursting thunderously ten yards from him, without trying to get some grip of his mental attitude towards them. He could not see his comrades killed and maimed and mutilated without in some way defining his views on life and death and duty and fate. He could not shoot and bayonet his fellow men without trying to formulate some justification for such an unprecedented course of action. His mind was compelled to react to the new and extraordinary situations with which it was confronted. And, oddly enough, in the course of these successive reactions he passed, without knowing it, very close to the path trodden before him by some of the greatest teachers of the world.
To begin with, it came as something of a shock to discover that the Rubáiyát, hitherto his most fruitful source of quotations., was quite useless to him. It was futile to talk about the cup when one had nothing to put in it, and as for refusing to take life seriously---well, Omar lived before the days of high explosives. The Latin Syntax was a little better. It at any rate provided him with Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, but even that seemed to be framed more for the comfort of his sorrowing relatives in the event of his "stopping a bullet" than for himself. As for the Bible---well, there were some jolly things in that, but he was rather shy about the Bible. It didn't seem quite playing the game to go to it now when he had neglected it so long; besides, these higher critics---well, he hadn't gone into the matter, but he had a pretty shrewd idea that the Bible was a bit discredited. No, he would just go by facts and their effect on himself, and do his best out of his own head.
One afternoon he was in a support trench, and the Germans had got the direction pretty right, and were enfilading it at a long range with their heavy guns. The shells began by dropping at the far end of the trench, which they blew to pieces most successfully. They then began to creep up in his direction, the range lengthening about twenty-five yards after each half-dozen shells. Would they reach him? Would he be at the end or in the middle of this beastly interval of twenty-five yards? In short, would the shells drop on top of him or about ten yards short or ten yards over? It was an agonizing half-hour, and in the course of it he very nearly became a Mohammedan. He didn't call it that. But he tried to read a comic paper, and told himself that it was simply a question of fate. "I can't do anything about it, " he said to himself. "If the damned thing drops, it drops; I can't stop it by worrying." Fate, that was the solution. "Kismet!" he repeated to himself, thinking, in a moment of inspiration, of Oscar Asche. As a matter of fact, the enfilade was not perfect, and as the shells crept up the exact direction was lost, and they burst harmlessly about fifteen yards behind the trench instead of in it. The Average Englishman murmured. "Praise be to Allah!" and relit his pipe, which had gone out.
Then a day or two later his company was moved up to the firing trench. Somehow the "Kismet" formula did not seem so effective there. The Germans were only about twenty-five yards away, the barbed wire had been badly knocked about, and the beasts had an unpleasant habit of creeping up at night through the long grass and throwing bombs into the trench. It was no longer a question of sitting tight and waiting; one had to watch very carefully, and the element of retaliation came in, too. He found himself sitting up half the night with a pile of bombs on the sandbags in front of him, watching the grass with straining eyes. It was nervous work. He had never thrown a bomb. Of course it was quite simple. You just pulled a pin out, counted four, and let fly. But supposing you dropped the beastly thing! Though it was a cold night, he sweated at the thought. Self-confidence was what he wanted now---self-confidence and the will to conquer. Where that last phrase came from he was not sure. He luckily did not realize how near he was to becoming a disciple of the Hunnish Nietzsche! "The will to prevail," that was the phrase which pleased him; and he thought to himself that it would suit a charge, too, if one came his way.
But the next morning it rained. The trench being a brand-new one, there were no dug-outs, and he had to stand in water and get wet. It was horrible. "Kismet" irritated him; "the will to prevail" did not help. Yet it was no use grousing. It only made matters worse for himself and the other fellows. Then he remembered a phrase from a boys' club in poorer London; "Keep smiling" was the legend written over the door, and he remembered that the motto on the club button was "Fratres." By God, those kids had a pretty thin time of it! But yet, somehow, when all the "Fratres" had made a determined effort to keep smiling, the result was rather wonderful. Yes, "Keep smiling" was the best motto he could find for a wet day, and he tried hard to live up to it.
At last the battalion went into reserve, and was unutterably bored for a week. By night they acted as ration carriers, and improved communication trenches. By day they endured endless inspections, slept a little, and grumbled much. Our Average Englishman tried hard to keep smiling, but failed miserably. This made him wonder whether, on his return to the trenches, his other formulæ would also fail him. But on the day before they went back into support one of the corporals fell sick, and much to his surprise he was hurriedly given one stripe and put in command of a section.
This promotion pleased him. He took the responsibility with extreme seriousness, and became quite fatherly in his attitude towards his "command." This was all the easier because that particular section had lost heavily during the preceding spell in the trenches, and its ranks had been largely made up from the members of a draft fresh from home.
We do not propose to describe his experiences minutely. Much the same thing happened as happened before. They were shelled while in support, and he walked up and down his section encouraging them and calming them down. In the firing trench the same bombs were in readiness, and he spent most of the night with the sentry to give him confidence. A bomb from a trench mortar actually fell into his part of the trench, killing one lad and wounding two more, and for the moment his hands were full steadying the others, applying field dressings to the wounded, and seeing to their removal from the trench.
At length the battalion was relieved, and marched back to a rest camp, where it spent three weeks of comparative peace. In the intervals of presenting arms and acting as orderly corporal the Average Englishman thought over his experiences, and it suddenly struck him that during his fortnight as a section commander he had actually forgotten to be afraid, or even nervous! It was really astounding.
Moreover, his mind rose to the occasion, and pointed out the reason. He had been so anxious for his section that he had never once thought of himself! With a feeling of utter astonishment, he realized that he had stumbled upon the very roots of courage ---unselfishness. He, the Average Englishman, had made an epoch-making philosophical discovery!
Of course he did not know that the Buddha had discovered this great truth some thousands of years before him. Still less did he guess that the solution of all these problems with which war had confronted him was contained in the religion in which he was supposed to have been educated: that trust in the all-knowing Father was Christ's loftier substitute for submission to fate; that faith was the higher form of self-confidence; and that the love that Christ taught was the Buddha's selflessness without the incubus of his artificial philosophy. Nevertheless, he had made great strides, and war has still fresh experiences in store for him, and no doubt experience will continue to instruct. And after all, how seldom does a "Christian education" teach one anything worth knowing about Christianity!